Would you tell your boss you had a mental health problem? What if you are the boss?

30Jan 16

At Kamwell, we help companies to boost their employees’ wellbeing. Mental health is absolutely key to wellbeing, and there are a number of options you can offer people that will prove beneficial.

But you can’t help your staff deal with, for example, a stress-induced bout of depression, or the recurrence of a long-standing eating disorder, if they don’t feel able to disclose what’s going on.

According to the anti-stigma campaign Time to Change, nearly half of people (48%) say they would feel uncomfortable talking to their employer about a mental health problem. Only 40% of respondents say they would be comfortable doing so.

Good mental health doesn’t mean someone is happy all the time, like a robot. It means they’re in good enough shape to deal with the ups and downs of day-to-day life. They’re functioning, getting pleasure out of things, and realise that mental wellbeing is linked to physical health and a number of other factors.

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 last month, 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.

Employers ought to encourage the individuals who work for them to be open about mental health problems in two types of situation: when a current employee develops a mental illness, for whatever reason; and when new employees with chronic conditions, which may or may not flare up again, start work.

In both cases, that member of staff is likely to take less time off work if they’re able to be open about their mental health problem with their line manager. They’re less likely to quit their job, so you’re less likely to have to go through the costs of recruiting a replacement. Staff who feel supported at work are more engaged and motivated.

But how exactly do you persuade people that it’s okay to talk about mental health?

Sometimes offering yoga sessions at lunchtime, or signing up to a mental health charity’s initiative, may not be enough to give employees the confidence to disclose their medical status. A few disjointed programmes don’t add up to an environment where it’s the norm to talk about things like anxiety and depression.

Stigma in the workplace is a serious issue for people with mental health problems. They’re afraid of jeopardising their career progress, appearing ‘weak’ in the eyes of colleagues, and worried that their illness won’t be dealt with in the same way as a physical illness.

That’s why at Kamwell we take a long-term view, and try to change the culture in a workplace, so that the importance of employee wellbeing is embedded at every level.

Tailored HR procedures, open communications between employees and line managers, mentoring systems — all these things can help. It’s the same as in areas of life outside the workplace; the best way to tackle stigma is by talking.

But in business, one of the most effective ways of signalling to your employees that this taboo has no place in your company is for those at the top to speak out about their own mental health 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.

But don’t just take it from us.

Lord Dennis Stevenson, the former boss of both HBOS and Pearson, says he experiences episodes of severe depression every five or six years. In a programme on BBC Radio 4, he talks about about the need for “intelligent and enlightened employers to say to themselves ‘it is in my interest’…to have an open atmosphere” when it comes to mental health problems.

And Lord Stevenson is very clear on the best way to achieve this open atmosphere: “It comes from the top. There is no alternative.”

Geoff McDonald Advocate and Campaigner for Mental Health and director at The Bridge Partnership, and was previously HR director at Unilever. He demonstrates how speaking out in the corporate world can have a powerful effect:

“While working for Unilever, I, as a senior leader, ‘came out of the closet’ on my own experience of depression and anxiety. This encouraged other senior leaders to do the same.

“We also brought other role models and prominent figures — including Alastair Campbell — into the business to talk about their experiences. These being people whom one would never expect to have suffered, and thus they ‘normalised’ mental health problems. Which one in four of us will experience during the course of our lives.

“After doing some of this role-modelling work, we saw a significant increase in the number of employees who began to talk and reach out for help. Over an 18-month period this increase was eightfold.”

So remember, talking is the key to unlocking the problems caused by mental ill health in your workforce. That’s why Kamwell is supporting the national Time to Talk Day on February 4th 2016.

1 National Attitudes to Mental Illness Survey conducted by TNS and Kings College London in 2014
2 CV-Library, January 2016
3’The Bottom Line’ presented by Evan Davis, BBC Radio 4, July 2014
4 Time to Talk Day is organised by Time to Change, to get as many people as possible across England talking about mental
health