The three C’s of the talking taboo
- 7 Min Read
Every year millions of pounds are donated to charities like ‘Mind’ and ‘Heads Together’ in an attempt to reduce the stigma that surrounds mental health. In many areas, they have succeeded in this mission, with mental health problems being far more commonly and accurately discussed and showcased across both social and mainstream media. What stigmas still exist, and what is being done about it?
There have been some hugely successful campaigns like the #timetotalk campaign that have seen millions of people starting conversations about their own mental health and that of those they care about.
Yet, The Mental Health Foundation report that as recently as 2017, 49% of employees reported feeling uncomfortable about talking about their Mental Health at work. The reality is though, the lack of conversation around mental health is causing 12.7% of our sick days (which is a staggering 18 million) and creating an estimated cost £26 billion a year in workplace disengagement and inefficiency.
Despite only 14.7% of employees report experiencing problems with their mental health, 85% of the UK workforce report experiencing stress regularly, with a ⅓ of employees feeling stressed at least one day a week. The cost of stress in the workplace is thought to create a 4% dent on the entire value of the UK economy which equates to over £100 billion, a far cry from the estimated £26 billion cost of poor mental health.
The reality is we will never know the true cost of poor mental health nor is it likely that we will ever have a realistic indicator of the true prevalence of mental health problems in the workplace or society as a whole. Yet most of us recognise that our approach to mental health is currently incredibly unhealthy and understand that the workplace is a great place to start shifting the statistics so why is talking still such a taboo?
Let’s be honest, when it comes to understanding mental health, despite lots of noise, scary statistics and supportive statements, we are still only as clear as mud. We have absolutely no idea if saying your depressed actually means you have depression or is an expression of your level of stress; we aren’t sure if feeling anxious is indicative of suffering with anxiety or a temporary physiological response to heightened arousal. We can’t be certain that a momentary absence of wellness correlates to a period of illness and as a result few us are able to find the words that are objective enough to allow us to communicate with clarity. There is no standard measure of mental health, to ensure employers and employees are speaking the same language. We have no idea of what is a functional level of stress and what is a precursor to illness. We are unable to understand if people are displaying coping strategies or are sliding into a crisis and with less than 25% of managers feeling confident about managing the mental health of their staff, who knows where starting a conversation about mental health could end.
Given the lack of clarity around Mental Health, it’s hard to understand what having a conversation about mental health will achieve. For employees, raising concerns about the levels of stress their experiencing at work or sharing the impact of a recent life event, could lead to anything from the offer of counselling and support through periods of statutory sick pay, disciplinary action or redundancy. It is a shocking reality that employees who simply need some flexibility in their working hours to reduce the stress associated with an over crowded commute could find themselves with no working hours at all so it isn’t overly surprising that people would rather not start a conversation given they have absolutely no confidence in where it will end or what it will take them to. Equally, employers are very clear on the problematic issue of problematic mental health but with such a lack of clarity around the subject, many of them would rather coast over the issue rather than confront it and find themselves in circumstances they can’t manage. After all, HR Managers never agreed to be psychiatrists and workplaces aren’t designed to be mental health hospitals and many of the individuals that have suddenly become responsible for the mental health of others will have no confidence in starting a conversation around mental health as it is more than likely that they won’t know how to navigate their way to closure.
The reality for both employers and employees is that when you start a conversation about mental health, it’s likely to be a conversation that never really ends. We don’t have a closure point for mental health problems and as a result, raising your hand for help during a brief period of stress will likely lead to you being labelled for the remainder of your career. Despite widespread opinion, I don’t believe that this is due to any sort of stigma or judgement but is instead due to the duty of care employers have, both morally and legally, for their employees. Senior staff are programmed to consider risks within their business and with absolutely no measure of stress or mental health, if an employee has indicated that they are susceptible to mental health problems, what authority do they have to ever confirm that that risk is over.
In our experience, problematic mental health in the workplace isn’t caused by mental illness but is instead indicative of the difficulties must of us have with the unprecedented levels of stress we experience on a day to day basis. Looking at Mental Health from an evolutionary perspective, it is much more likely that our brain simply haven’t adapted to the huge amount of stimulus we are now exposed to rather than suddenly finding an unexplained increase in the prevalence of poor mental health.
Each and every one of us are over working our brain muscle with increased screen time, decreased fresh air time, chemicals in food and alcohol and the never ending comparative nature of finances, parenting, careers and more. We aren’t programmed to compare ourselves to every person we’ve ever met through a channel like facebook – in fact, our brains aren’t designed to maintain that many relationships. We weren’t built to have options around just about everything and we haven’t developed the coping mechanisms to ensure we are capable of dealing with the consequences of the hundreds of choices we now have to make.
Employers have managed to understand that they need to lay a role in proactively maintaining their skeletal well being of their staff as our spines weren’t built to sit at a desk for over 8 hours a day and do this without judgement of those individuals that need the additional support of a physio or a particularly ergonomic desk. We provide skeletal care without fear of an employees back suddenly breaking or the concern of immediate onset of crippling osteoporosis. The problem with applying the same approach to mental health lies within the way we perceive our mind.
Although tackling the 3 Cs of the talking taboo requires a complex change in the way we measure and practically support mental well being, it must be begin by a shift in our thinking. That thinking does not need to be more compassionate or understanding of mental illness but instead needs to recognise our mind as a muscle that can simply become overworked or unaligned just like every other muscle in our body. It is a muscle that, just like any other, can be proactively trained and strengthened to help us increase the demands we can put on it, it can often repair on it’s own accord with rest. The brain isn’t unlike any other muscle in the body and we can not control it indefinitely with pressure, determination or any form of wizadry.
Knowing how to handle the strength training and conditioning of the brain within the workplace is down to experts like Brain Box Solutions but tackling the talking must come from the grassroots and begin with a shift in the way we are able to clarify Mental Health, the confidence we have in our solutions and the closure we deliver around periods of problematic mental well being.
For more information www.brainboxsolutions.co.uk