How to tell your staff you have a mental health problem

20Jul 16

Someone with a diagnosable mental health problem has a medical illness that should be regarded in just the same way as a physical illness. Except many worry that it’s not.

A recruitment website surveyed 1,100 workers earlier this year, and nearly two-thirds said they wouldn’t give their depression as the reason for calling in sick. A whopping 89% believed that disclosing depression in an interview would hinder their chances of getting the job.

Working at the sharp end of the business and its pressures, what happens if you’re the one on medication or being referred to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy sessions?

Everyone in the workplace, at whatever level, is afraid of jeopardising their career progress, appearing ‘weak’ in the eyes of colleagues, and worried their illness won’t be dealt with in the same way as something physical.

As a senior figure in your organisation, it’s imperative that you don’t ignore your concerns about your personal health and state-of-mind. First of all, you’re not alone. 1 in 6 employees will experience a mental health issue at some point. Your business and team rely on you so you have to take responsibility, be courageous and seek the required help and support you need.

Don’t try and compromise by giving partial information, playing down your experiences. You need to be open and honest about specifics: if you’ve had sleep problems, what they are, when they started; how your feelings are affecting your abilities to work and deal with difficult situations; if there’s anything in particular that exacerbates what you’re going through, the long hours, travel, confrontation etc. Masking the problem only serves to delay your recovery.

Make use of your firm’s confidential services, whether that’s in occupational health or an Employee Assistance Programme – or simply someone you trust within the organisation or outside. There will be different tactics for your peers, direct line reports and other groups of staff: individual conversations, to a group, or via line managers. What matters most is to communicate your honesty, commitment to getting a problem sorted, and given the support you have from a wider team, why it’s business as usual.

One of the most effective ways of signalling to your employees that a mental health taboo has no place in your company is for those at the top to speak out about their own problems. What better way to show that careers don’t necessarily suffer, than for the boss to give a talk about how they manage their own bipolar disorder? If a director is open about how work once made them so stressed they needed professional help to deal with their anxiety, colleagues are more likely to open up about their own concerns.

When Unilever HR Director Geoff McDonald opened up about his own depression, other senior leaders followed his example — 18 months on and the number of staff coming forward to talk to line managers about their issues had increased eightfold. Lord Dennis Stevenson, the former boss of both HBOS and Pearson, has talked publicly about how he experiences episodes of severe depression every five or six years, and has called for more employers to encourage open conversations, particularly those involving people at the top.

Ultimately, breaking the stigma and education are key. Introducing mental health awareness and training for leaders, line managers and the workforce alike, will all help with creating a more positive culture. Changing attitudes to people from dealing with stress, depression, anxiety, will be fundamental in ensuring problems are picked up early, there are lower levels of absence and a positive and supportive culture for high-performance.

Also published in Fresh Business Thinking