Healthy minds, healthy staff

Look­ing af­ter em­ploy­ees in the work­place:

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - Pa­trick Kelle­her

Have you ever been too sick to go to work, but been too em­bar­rassed to tell your man­ager what is hap­pen­ing? This is the re­al­ity for many of the one-in-four peo­ple who suf­fer from men­tal health is­sues in Ire­land. While the last decade has seen huge im­prove­ments in the public dis­course around men­tal health is­sues, there con­tin­ues to be a great deal of stigma at­tached to ad­mit­ting that you are not cop­ing.

This stigma is pos­si­bly most se­vere in the work­place, where fac­tors such as long work­ing hours, high pres­sure and tem­po­rary con­tracts can con­trib­ute to the de­vel­op­ment of men­tal health is­sues. For oth­ers, fac­tors out­side of work may cause men­tal health is­sues, but a stress­ful work­ing en­vi­ron­ment can make it even harder to cope with them.

Deal­ing with these is­sues in the work­place can be a chal­leng­ing task, how­ever, it has be­come eas­ier in re­cent years.

To­day, many work­places have Em­ployee As­sis­tance Pro­grammes (EAPs), where em­ploy­ees with men­tal health is­sues can ac­cess coun­selling and other sup­ports. More work­places are be­com­ing en­gaged with the men­tal health of their em­ploy­ees, and are be­gin­ning to un­der­stand that hav­ing healthy staff ben­e­fits ev­ery­body in an or­gan­i­sa­tion.

This change is in part due to the See Change Work­place pro­gramme, which was launched in 2015. See Change, Ire­land’s Na­tional Men­tal Health Stigma Re­duc­tion Part­ner­ship, launched the pro­gramme to make work­ing life eas­ier for those suf­fer­ing from men­tal health is­sues.

“When we started ini­tially, we re­alised that there was a huge stigma around men­tal health,” says Dolores Ka­vanagh, co-or­di­na­tor of the pro­gramme.

“From do­ing our own re­search in 2010-2012, we found that stigma was most com­mon in the work­place and peo­ple were less likely to seek help for men­tal health is­sues at work.”

See Change be­gan do­ing work­shops for line man­agers on men­tal health in the work­place in 2013, but they quickly found that em­ploy­ers were not tak­ing it se­ri­ously.

“It was a tick box ex­er­cise,” says Ka­vanagh. “They would get us in to do the work­shops and the at­ti­tude was, ‘well that’s men­tal health cov­ered’, and there wasn’t any­thing else done. The work­place pro­gramme is funded by the Na­tional Of­fice for Sui­cide Pre­ven­tion, so they had asked us to do some­thing fur­ther for these or­gan­i­sa­tions, so that’s when we de­vel­oped the pledge pro­gramme.”

The six-step pledge pro­gramme in­cludes two steps for manag--ement. Or­gan­i­sa­tions that sign up to the pledge must pro­vide train­ing for line man­agers about men­tal health in the work­place. They must also de­velop a Men­tal Health Pol­icy Doc­u­ment for the or­gan­i­sa­tion. Later steps of the pledge re­quire the or­gan­i­sa­tion to en­gage all staff in men­tal health and well­be­ing train­ing, and nom­i­nate “staff champions” that em­ploy­ees can ap­proach if they are strug­gling.

“[The pro­gramme] re­ally gives or­gan­i­sa­tions a struc­ture,” Ka­vanagh ex­plains. “A lot of them are lack­ing that. They of­ten don’t know where to start when it comes to men­tal health, so this pro­gramme gives them struc­ture in putting some­thing in place in the or­gan­i­sa­tion to chal­lenge the stigma around men­tal health and to try to cre­ate a work­place that’s open to talk­ing about men­tal health. The steps don’t have to be done in or­der, but we do like to see in the or­gan­i­sa­tions that we have buy-in from se­nior man­age­ment, be­cause you need to lead by ex­am­ple.”

Ka­vanagh says that See Change is in­un­dated with re­quests from or­gan­i­sa­tions hop­ing to do some­thing around men­tal health, and says that em­ploy­ers are be­com­ing much more en­gaged with the well­be­ing of their em­ploy­ees.

“At the be­gin­ning, or­gan­i­sa­tions liked to talk about ‘well­ness’ a lot,” says Ka­vanagh. “When we were go­ing in to do talks, they would say ‘can we call them well­ness work­shops, or else peo­ple won’t go’, and we said, ‘well no, it’s men­tal health, that’s what it is. We’re not call­ing it well­ness.’ There is a change in that cul­ture now as well, and a lot more man­agers are keen to talk about men­tal health in the work­place.”

Em­ploy­ees’ men­tal health Thomas Larkin, a Dublin-based ther­a­pist who works with or­gan­i­sa­tions, agrees with Ka­vanagh that there has been a change in re­cent years. He says that the im­por­tance of look­ing af­ter em­ploy­ees’ men­tal health can­not be un­der­es­ti­mated.

“If you ig­nore men­tal health in the work­place, it’s a lose-lose sit­u­a­tion for or­gan­i­sa­tions. But if you en­gage with it on a level, it can be a win-win,” he says.

“We have to ac­cept the lim­its of what we can do,” Larkin ex­plains. “We can ig­nore that re­al­ity within our­selves, and em­ploy­ers can ig­nore it. They want the job done, and they keep try­ing to push a pint into a half pint glass, and then there’s a break. It’s not just one cut, it’s the final cut of a thou­sand that sends peo­ple into a tail­spin, and then peo­ple say, ‘well what’s wrong with him, I only asked for such and such?’”

“For me it does feel like cor­po­ra­tions are re­spond­ing, but in a way, they’re not in­formed them­selves.

Yoga classes

“They do yoga classes, mas­sages, and train­ing days – and they’re good, but they’re kind of like a wave on an ocean: no mat­ter how in­ter­est­ing, funny, and in­spir­ing some­body is, it’s still a wave on an ocean. The wave comes, the wave goes, and noth­ing changes. What I do is I of­fer ther­apy in the work­place, and it’s about deal­ing with the cur­rent of the sea rather than the wave.

“Stress and anx­i­ety means that you are over­whelmed. It means that you’re try­ing to fit the pint into the half-pint glass, but we can be full al­ready. We’re so full of fam­ily stuff, of our own his­tory, of ev­ery­thing, that when the half pint is al­ready in the glass, you can’t fit more in. With ther­apy, we of­fer em­ploy­ees rolling ses­sions. We do about six ses­sions and then just roll through each em­ployee and then back to the start. As peo­ple process what’s go­ing on with them, it frees them up. It frees the space up, so there’s more space for them­selves and there’s more space for work, so they are ac­tu­ally more pro­duc­tive.”

Peter Led­den, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Abate Coun­selling, says that the of­fer­ing of coun-

‘‘ If you ig­nore men­tal health in the work­place, it’s a lose-lose sit­u­a­tion for or­gan­i­sa­tions. But if you en­gage with it on a level, it can be a win-win

sell­ing to em­ploy­ees who are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing men­tal health is­sues ac­tu­ally saves the or­gan­i­sa­tion money in the long run.

“There is in­ter­est­ing lit­er­a­ture on the mar­ket­place that sug­gests that for ev­ery dol­lar spent on well­be­ing in Amer­ica the company saves $16 (¤13.40). Sim­ply by al­low­ing the staff mem­ber ac­cess to a well­ness pro­gramme, staff turnover and ab­sen­teeism are re­duced. There are so many rea­sons why a company should look af­ter the men­tal well­be­ing of an em­ployee. Other ways that they can do that might be to put in some health pro­mo­tion days like work life bal­ance talks, stress talks, and time man­age­ment talks. Lunchtime lec­tures on top­ics like that that can help. It also helps to have an open door in the HR de­part­ment, but not every­one will trust that av­enue.”

While or­gan­i­sa­tions are un­doubt­edly be­com­ing more en­gaged with their em­ploy­ees’ men­tal health, what can in­di­vid­u­als who are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing dif­fi­cul­ties do to al­le­vi­ate the bur­den at work? Martin Ro­gan, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Men­tal Health Ire­land, says that there are a num­ber of steps you can take if you are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing men­tal health dif­fi­cul­ties in the work­place.

“Talk to your line man­ager if you feel you can do that,” says Ro­gan. “Ex­plain that you’re ex­pe­ri­enc­ing some dif­fi­culty.

Thank­fully in Ire­land, we’re still quite re­la­tional in our work­places. You’re not just a ma­chine or a cog, and peo­ple are usu­ally un­der­stand­ing and sup­port­ive of that and allow you some space or time. I think most em­ploy­ers will adapt to that if you’re proac­tive and ex­plain that you’re hav­ing dif­fi­culty.

Em­ployee as­sis­tance

“More and more, peo­ple are be­gin­ning to recog­nise that men­tal health is­sues are an or­di­nary part of the hu­man con­di­tion. With big­ger em­ploy­ers, you should have ac­cess to Em­ployee As­sis­tance Pro­grammes, and these can in­volve ac­cess to a coun­sel­lor, or tele­phone based sup­ports, or ac­cess to treat­ment op­tions if you wish to do that. In most in­stances, peo­ple use the public health ser­vices, and those ser­vices have im­proved very rad­i­cally in the last num­ber of years.

“The vast ma­jor­ity of the ser­vices are com­mu­nity-based, and all com­mu­nity-based ser­vices are free of charge.”

De­spite the leaps for­ward made in re­cent years, for some, con­fronting men­tal health is­sues in the work­place is still a huge chal­lenge, and some can­not find the courage to ap­proach a man­ager.

This is be­cause, as Dolores Ka­vanagh points out, there is still a stigma at­tached to men­tal health is­sues.

“It is get­ting bet­ter but we have a long way to go. These things do take time. There are or­gan­i­sa­tions we’ve been work­ing with since the be­gin­ning, maybe five years ago, and they’re only start­ing to see a change now.

“A lot of com­pa­nies are im­ple­ment­ing well­ness poli­cies or hav­ing well­ness weeks, but I’m not sure that it’s fil­ter­ing through to every­one in the or­gan­i­sa­tions. I think we have a way to go be­fore that’s done, but it just in­volves every­one tak­ing it on board.”

Ka­vanagh also says that af­ter the many re­dun­dan­cies of the re­ces­sion, there can be a lack of trust be­tween em­ployee and em­ployer, which can make con­fronting men­tal health is­sues in the work­place even more chal­leng­ing.

“If you’re work­ing in an or­gan­i­sa­tion that has had lay-offs in the last num­ber of years, there is a fear in peo­ple. They might not want to say, ‘I have a men­tal health is­sue’, be­cause they think they’ll be the first to go. If you talk about men­tal health prob­lems peo­ple some­times still see that as a weak­ness. Peo­ple of­ten have that mis­con­cep­tion that it is a weak­ness and that peo­ple will look at you dif­fer­ently, so I think there is a fear of talk­ing about it for those rea­sons.”

The re­al­ity is that not all em­ploy­ees will feel com­fort­able ap­proach­ing their em­ployer when they are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing men­tal health is­sues.

In that case, ac­cess­ing private ther­apy or go­ing through the public men­tal health sys­tem is the best course of ac­tion, says Thomas Larkin.

“If your em­ployer won’t change, then you have to change,” says Larkin. “Some em­ploy­ers won’t change. It’s like bang­ing your head against the wall. Some­times you have to make changes your­self in­stead, but it can be dif­fi­cult.

“What we do pro­fes­sion­ally is an ex­pres­sion of our­selves. If your work is a good ex­pres­sion of your­self, then you en­joy your work. When your work is not a good ex­pres­sion of your­self, then you don’t en­joy your work. With a bit of ther­apy, you can find what’s more in tune with your­self, and then move to­wards it,” he adds.

While things have changed in Ire­land in re­cent years around men­tal health in the work­place, there is still a great deal of work to be done.

How­ever, as more and more or­gan­i­sa­tions sign up to the See Change pledge, there is a greater aware­ness than ever be­fore of the chal­lenges poor men­tal health can cause for em­ploy­ees, and the need on the part of or­gan­i­sa­tions to help their work­ers be­come healthy and happy peo­ple.

‘‘ A lot of com­pa­nies are im­ple­ment­ing well­ness poli­cies or hav­ing well­ness weeks, but I’m not sure that it’s fil­ter­ing through to every­one in the or­gan­i­sa­tions. I think we have a way to go be­fore that’s done, but it just in­volves every­one tak­ing it on board

With big­ger em­ploy­ers, you should have ac­cess to Em­ployee As­sis­tance Pro­grammes

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