Mental Health Deserves A Better Narrative
Mental Health is perhaps finally getting the recognition and attention it deserves… but having secured its place on the leadership agenda perhaps it’s time to move beyond good intentions and lip service.
Employers are being encouraged to embrace a new world where we accept that “we all have mental health”… countless CEOs have shared their struggles, reminding everyone “it’s ok to not be ok” whilst continuing to ignore the working practices that perpetuate the rise in work related stress.
We’re teaching people how to be more resilient, promoting mindful everything, and establishing teams of mental health first aiders in the way we used to have Fire Marshalls in every office (although I don’t know if being a MHFA comes with a hi-viz jacket).
These things are great but they’re all about placing the burden on employees to manage their emotional health, and whilst representing part of the solution, they’re somewhat enabling employers to continue ignoring why or how their working practices are contributing to this growing problem… as such they’re lip service without changing the underlying conditions.
Mental health is both serious and complex, yet the narrative associated with it reflects neither…
“If it were a broken leg…”
The reason we don’t treat mental health like we do a broken leg is because they’re not remotely similar.
In the case of a broken leg, a broken anything for that matter, it's clear, broadly easy to understand and can be treated in a way where the implications are somewhat obvious to all of us… in the case of a leg, it's plaster, crutches, time off for appointments etc..
With Mental Health conditions it isn’t like this. Symptoms, causes and treatments may vary from person to person. There’s an unpredictability and uncertainty associated that presents additional challenge for employers, managers and colleagues alike — sure, it’s about the individual and no one is losing sight of that but the effects are I know why we want to imagine it’s straightforward and why we want to simplify it in this way, but accepting that it’s complex, recognising that it presents case by case implications is arguably a more constructive and grown-up way to prepare yourself.
Mental Health means…
As a term, Mental Health, is somewhat unique… being used synonymously with all mental health conditions, things that aren’t mental health conditions but relate to our mental health and our general mental health. That’s fine, to a point, but we don’t use the term ‘Physical Health’ in anything like the same way… it’s not a catch all for a twisted ankle, all forms of cancer and high levels of fitness… and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use the term “We all have physical health”.
I’m not trying to be fussy about the language or indeed play semantics… but I suspect that the way we talk about, and in particular, how seldom we hear clear or specific language about it is reflective of our discomfort with it… I don’t know what represents appropriate language or terminology — is it mental illness, are some conditions illness and others not, is it acceptable to call diagnosed conditions by their name? I suspect that I’m not alone in treading carefully as a result.
I suspect that this overarching expression is what leads us to conflate diagnosed conditions (and the associated treatments and implications), with the principle that when it comes to mental health, being a responsible employer means we should embrace duvet days.
I understand how these two things relate to mental health, just as it is with work-related stress. But even stress, with its clear relationship with mental and physical health conditions doesn’t make it a mental health problem by rights… does it?
Addressing stress in the workplace and being an employer where mental health conditions are regarded and accepted as part of life for people working there, seem to me to be very different things requiring different approaches.
Work related stress is something we have some influence over as both employer and employees, whether managing causes or effects. This isn’t the case with other conditions and that alone makes the difference significant.
“Let’s talk about mental health”
There has been so much good work done to reduce the stigma associated with mental health, securing its place on the agenda and ensuring that mental health is now firmly part of being a responsible, inclusive employer…
… but even with all the good work, this needs saying.
I wonder if the strap-line “Lets talk about mental health” was once specifically intended as a means to starting the discussion… a great way to say, “we need to talk about this stuff it’s important”.
Today, it seems to be about us talking openly in the workplace about sensitive issues related to our mental health.
It makes me wonder if the people behind the strap-line have ever worked in anything resembling a normal company…
…You know that place you work, where you need to ensure your anonymity is guaranteed before answering the questions in the annual survey… yeah, that place… they’d like you to know that “it’s OK to not be OK”
There’s an analogy I use in talks, specifically about this subject, it’s deliberately challenging our best intentions… what we think we’ll do, what we say we’ll do and what we actually do are often very different things.
Before I share it I want to warn you (as I would if you were in the audience) that you might consider it a little insensitive. I also want to be very clear that it is in no way intended to make light of the subject, in fact, quite the opposite… but I can think of no better way to make the point.
It goes like this…
. . .
Imagine you’re sitting on an airplane heading off on holiday. Over the tannoy the familiar welcome…
“Good morning, this is your captain speaking…
… I just want to share with you all that for a little while now I’m finding it all difficult… I’ve been feeling a little down… no, not that… it’s more like hopeless… you know those times when it’s hard to get up in the mornings… I won’t lie, sometimes I wonder what’s the point of it all…
… Sorry, I probably shouldn’t have said that, carry on… enjoy the flight”
Everyone on board is thinking “oh f*ck, we’re all going to die”
At work, if a colleague was to say something similar, we’re not thinking that we’re going to die, but that doesn’t mean we don’t sense a threat and nor does it mean there aren’t going to be consequences.
What most likely happens is we’ll try to offer support as best we can in the moment… despite not knowing what to say… then we start thinking about impact.
“perhaps David shouldn’t be coming to that meeting with the client next week”…
“this project is really important, maybe we should swap David out of this one”…
“what’s David working on? perhaps we should just check what’s going on with his workload…”
David knows this too… fearing marginalisation and perhaps threatening his career path, and that’s why he won’t or can’t share how he’s feeling.
Just because your CEO has shared their personal struggles from the past… they’re in the past, that CEO is safe.
I know we all want to believe we’ll behave differently.
I know that companies want to be responsible when it comes to doing the right thing for employees in these situations.
In reality, it’s a risk to the company, to the goal, to the team... to my own career. Risks need managing and mitigating.
We do what’s best for the company.
. . .
In summing up, Mental Health is firmly part of our consciousness in a way it has never been – that’s no mean feat and all associated should be very proud.
Now, recognising the distinction between the conditions (mental health) that we should be supporting our employees with… and the conditions (working practices) that are contributing to the rising levels of work-related stress, would seem to me to be a course of action likely to help further progress possible.
Relying on people to “own up” is wishful – and too late in many cases – we need to find another way.