Why is it important to talk about mental health in the workplace?

In my opinion, mental health is currently one of the biggest issues facing the UK, not only within the healthcare system, but also within the criminal justice system. Overall, the workplace is beginning to realise how important it is to talk about it and are training individuals with the skills needed to discuss with and help people who need it. Mental health is also probably at the highest level of recognition within society it has ever been, with more and more people talking about their own experiences openly and without negative comment. It is not anywhere near where it should be however, but compared to the previous decades where mental health was barely discussed openly by people, it has come a very long way. The workplace is beginning to understand the need for more open discussions on mental health, and in this article I will talk about my own experience of how the workplace is aiding this much needed movement.

My educational background is partly in Psychology, and I have previously volunteered for a mental health charity, so I am perhaps more open-minded when it comes to mental health than some others. I mean that in a way that when looking at some people in society who may not have any previous experience with mental health, I am perhaps someone who will understand a bit more about the topic, and not react in a negative way towards it. For example, some people may dismiss it as being a problem, or not want to discuss it because they do not understand it. Some people may even be scared about talking about the topic of mental health, and that could be due to their own experience with their own or loved ones’ mental health, or it may be a topic they do not want to encounter. Conversely, I think not understanding and not knowing are different things – because how can a person understand something they don’t know about? This is where mental health awareness is vital in changing certain views, or even enlightening those who are uninformed.

As part of an opportunity at my own workplace, I spent two days undertaking a Mental Health First Aid course and I loved it. Not only from my own learning did I like it, but also because of how in-depth the material went. We were given a big book about anything and everything we could need with becoming a Mental Health First Aider. The two days of training consisted of videos, discussions, group exercises, individual activities, workbook tasks, roleplays, looking at case studies, and most importantly learning about various types of mental health problems. I say this was the most important part because I think being able to identify possible reasons for why someone is behaving in a certain way can ensure they are given the correct advice and support, and even be reassured if they are worried about how they are feeling.

Becoming a Mental Health First Aider in a workplace is, in my opinion, about being armed with the correct skills and information to be able to help someone if they are experiencing difficulties with their mental health. Part of being a Mental Health First Aider is being able to spot if someone’s behaviour has changed, or if someone is displaying certain signs of needing to talk about something. Generally, in the week especially, we spend more active time with the people we work with than the people we live with, so changes may be more noticeable in that sense. This is why I think having Mental Health First Aiders in a work environment is a necessity.

The role of being a Mental Health First Aider is not about diagnosing a mental health problem; people who have carried out the two-day training are not suddenly mental health professionals, but they are people who are more aware of mental health problems and the process of what to do when interacting with someone who may need professional help. My understanding of the aim of the role is for them to be a person who can listen non-judgementally to someone who is experiencing mental health difficulties and encourage them to seek professional help, i.e. going to see their GP. Depending on the nature of the problem, it can also be about discussing ways of changing their lifestyle to potentially help with the situation; for example with someone experiencing low mood, they may benefit from exercising or taking on a new hobby. Most importantly, I think the role is about reassuring a person that there is help and support available, and they are by no means alone in feeling the way they do.

I think workplaces now beginning to have Mental Health First Aiders is a revelation overall in how employment is seen to potentially being a factor in the mental health problems some people face. Stress can be a big factor in the risk of developing a mental health problem , and by 11 million days being lost at work per year due to stress at work, I think it is vital that the problem is addressed in whatever way possible. Training people to recognise the signs of people struggling with various parts of their mental health is one way to help, but addressing the symptom is not going to change the cause. Ways of alleviating stress potentially can, however, and such techniques are becoming more and more apparent within the collective consciousness in society. The practice of mindfulness is one example of this, but I think everyone has their own way(s) of dealing with any stress they feel and encounter, and having outlets such as hobbies and exercising can be ways of combating it.

I have worked in a few different types of work environments in my working life, and one in particular was one where talking about mental health would have been extremely difficult to do, and was probably not something on people’s radar as being something to talk about. Therefore, having a programme of training Mental Health First Aiders sends out a message, I think, about how important it is to understand that mental health is not something that only a few people struggle with, it is something that has varying levels of severity, with some potentials to become worse; for example low mood developing into depression. With approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK experiencing a mental health problem each year, initiatives like MHFA England enables mental health to be on people’s radar, which can only help with breaking down the barriers that are still left within society regarding mental health. Talking about something will allow it to become easier to do so in the long run.

So why is it important to talk about mental health in the workplace? I think it is important for two main reasons; it is somewhere most people who are employed spend the majority of their time and it is therefore somewhere where a person’s behaviour can potentially be viewed the most; and because in many cases, the workplace can be a cause of stress, which can exacerbate some mental health problems. With work being a big part of many people’s lives, it seems obvious that mental health should not only be talked about in people’s live generally, but also focused on in an area which can be a contributing factor, or at least an area that is impacted upon if and when mental health problems arise. Experiencing mental health problems also has the potential to be isolating, so if colleagues of someone experiencing this are knowledgeable with mental health, it can have a positive effect in that it doesn’t have to be something that a person’s is ashamed of having; a physical health problem isn’t, so why should a mental health one be? Knowledge is power, but knowledge is also a way combating feelings of embarrassment which is too often why mental health is not discussed. So if I had to pick one reason, this is why it is important to talk about mental health in the workplace; to break down the barriers of what mental health is and isn’t, and to help everyone become more knowledgeable in how to help anyone who is in need of it.

Sarah Keeping MBPsS MSc PgDip GDip BA (Hons)

Follow Sarah on twitter at @keepingapproach