‘I was told to cheer up and not be so neg­a­tive’

Many peo­ple suf­fer­ing with men­tal-health is­sues are afraid to open up to their boss, and those who do are of­ten met with a lack of un­der­stand­ing

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Workplace - Geral­dine Walsh

Are we at tip­ping point when it comes to our men­tal health and well-be­ing? With three in 10 of us ex­pe­ri­enc­ing men­tal-health is­sues, we are at a time when be­ing given the op­por­tu­nity to openly dis­cuss our men­tal health is a pre­rog­a­tive. But are we of­fered that op­por­tu­nity? Are we be­ing heard? Do we feel com­fort­able enough open­ing this con­ver­sa­tion, es­pe­cially in the work­place?

A Men­tal Health Foun­da­tion sur­vey un­cov­ered wor­ry­ing sta­tis­tics about how the work en­vi­ron­ment is af­fect­ing our men­tal health. One third of us are un­happy about how much time we spend in work. Forty per cent are ne­glect­ing other as­pects of our lives, which has a neg­a­tive ef­fect on our men­tal health.

Work­ing long hours is mak­ing us feel de­pressed, anx­ious and ir­ri­ta­ble. Al­most two thirds have ex­pe­ri­enced a neg­a­tive ef­fect on our per­sonal life, in­clud­ing poor re­la­tion­ships and poor home life.

The pres­sure of our de­mand­ing work cul­ture is cre­at­ing lim­its on our per­sonal lives as work takes over. The work­load is heavy, the hours are long, the pres­sure is enor­mous. These lim­its are ul­ti­mately put­ting up bar­ri­ers that are af­fect­ing or hin­der­ing our men­tal health. It is the one place where we need the sup­port and as­sis­tance when suf­fer­ing with poor men­tal health. Many em­ploy­ees, how­ever, are still fear­ful of open­ing up in the work en­vi­ron­ment, es­pe­cially to their boss.

Adam has worked in IT for more than 15 years. “For as long as I have had a job, I’ve suf­fered with my men­tal health,” he says. “Be­tween de­pres­sion, neg­a­tive thoughts and anx­i­ety, I’ve had it all. To look at me though, you’d never know.

“I never told a sin­gle col­league and I es­pe­cially never men­tioned it to any boss over the years. I suf­fered in si­lence, hid­ing as much as I pos­si­bly could. On bad days, I would blame a mi­graine, any­thing, to stop peo­ple ask­ing ques­tions. I was afraid to tell any­one.”

Adam’s story, un­for­tu­nately, is not unique. His re­luc­tance to be open and hon­est with his boss and col­leagues is al­most too com­mon, with so many feel­ing over­whelmed and wor­ried about what would hap­pen if they dis­cussed their men­tal health.

Adam says: “I al­ways thought they’d never un­der­stand. That col­leagues would judge me. I was ner­vous of be­ing looked at dif­fer­ently and wor­ried I’d lose friends or worse, my job.”

Over­whelm­ing pres­sure

While at work, Adam ad­mits to hav­ing felt an over­whelm­ing pres­sure to be the best he could be, which, for him, meant not dis­clos­ing his men­tal-health prob­lems. His fear that col­leagues and his boss would os­tracise him meant he kept silent. But as with most things, there comes that tip­ping point.

“It all changed when a des­per­ately bad anx­i­ety at­tack made me at­tempt to take my own life,” Adam re­calls. “I wanted it all to be over but in­stead it made me re­alise that I needed more help than I was getting. It was eas­ier than I thought to talk to my boss but it took far too much for me to fi­nally get to the point of feel­ing I could open up. I al­most wasn’t here to tell any­one about my de­pres­sion. My boss was more un­der­stand­ing than I imag­ined and she’s sup­ported me a lot.”

Emma, on the other hand, who worked in the hospi­tal­ity in­dus­try, was met with a lack of em­pa­thy from her em­ployer which saw her re­treat fur­ther – mak­ing her de­pres­sion worse.

“I was told to cheer up and not be so neg­a­tive. My boss had no un­der­stand­ing what­so­ever of what I was go­ing through and didn’t know how to help me. I imag­ine he was em­bar­rassed con­sid­er­ing I ended up in tears in his of­fice. I have never felt so ne­glected, iso­lated and worth­less in my life com­pared to that day and that’s say­ing a lot. In the end, I couldn’t han­dle work­ing there and quit.

“I was un­em­ployed, frag­ile and suf­fer­ing de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety with sui­ci­dal thoughts. If it wasn’t for my ther­a­pist, I’m not sure where I would be.”

Ais­ling Leonard-Curtin, char­tered psy­chol­o­gist, co-di­rec­tor of ACT Now Pur­pose­ful Liv­ing and au­thor of The Power of Small says the re­al­ity is that most man­agers and busi­ness own­ers have lit­tle or no train­ing in men­tal health.

“As a re­sult,” she says, “of­ten those in lead­er­ship po­si­tions are un­com­fort­able and un­skilled in terms of how they re­spond to strong, in­tense, un­wanted emo­tions. Lead­ers may re­spond in a way that min­imises the em­ployee’s dis­tress or in a way that comes across as pa­tro­n­is­ing. Ei­ther of these ap­proaches can be harm­ful for the em­ployee.

“Those in lead­er­ship po­si­tions could greatly ben­e­fit from un­der­go­ing train­ing in ac­cep­tance and com­mit­ment train­ing (ACT). This ap­proach has been shown, through re­search, to help lead­ers to re­spond to em­ploy­ees in more com­pas­sion­ate and flex­i­ble ways.

“As a re­sult, ab­sen­teeism, burnout and staff turnover all de­crease whilst psy­cho­log­i­cal well-be­ing, phys­i­cal health, job sat­is­fac­tion and pro­duc­tiv­ity all im­prove.”

Psy­cho­log­i­cal ap­proaches

Pro­mot­ing pos­i­tive men­tal health in the work­place of­ten fo­cuses on is­sues such as stress man­age­ment and skills train­ing, which more of­ten than not gives em­pha­sis to the work en­vi­ron­ment. For those of us with men­tal-health is­sues, this is not en­tirely help­ful. Leonard-Curtin says em­ploy­ers can give their em­ploy­ees the con­fi­dence to speak up about their men­tal well-be­ing with train­ing in psy­cho­log­i­cal ap­proaches such as ACT.

“How­ever,” she says, “there are a num­ber of small, yet ef­fec­tive, ways that busi­nesses can help sup­port those with men­tal health [IS­SUES] to speak up about their own strug­gles and chal­lenges.

“Be mind­ful of how you speak about men­tal health in the work­place. What you say, and don’t say, has an im­pact on those who strug­gle with men­tal-health dif­fi­cul­ties.

“Be mind­ful of how you re­spond to strong, un­wanted emo­tions. As best you can, avoid the se­duc­tive traps of min­imis­ing or pa­tro­n­is­ing. Have train­ing days around self-care and men­tal health and then in­te­grate what is learned on an on­go­ing ba­sis. Oth­er­wise, such train­ings can be per­ceived as to­kenis­tic.”

It’s not al­ways pos­si­ble to put your­self in some­one else’s shoes, es­pe­cially if you have not ex­pe­ri­enced men­tal-health is­sues per­son­ally. For those suf­fer­ing with men­tal-health is­sues, it’s im­por­tant they feel ac­cepted, re­spected and un­der­stood. Fos­ter­ing a cul­ture of trust and sup­port will go a long way to break the si­lence.

To look at me though, you’d never know. I never told a sin­gle col­league and I es­pe­cially never men­tioned it to any boss over the years

Psy­chol­o­gist Ais­ling Leonard-Curtin (right): “Be mind­ful of how you speak about men­tal health in the work­place.”

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