“It’s not them, it’s us” Diane Lightfoot, CEO of Business Disability Forum speaks about her personal and professional experience of mental health.
Mental health is consistently one of the biggest topics to our advice service. We are contacted about the full breadth of mental health – from stress, anxiety and depression to severe anxiety disorders (eating disorders, OCD) and schizophrenia.
The good news is that mental health is in the news today more than ever – and in a way that would have been unimaginable perhaps even 5 years ago.
And if this higher profile helps to reduce stigma and give people who are experiencing mental ill health the confidence to ask for the help they need, that can only be a good thing.
But the bad news is that there is still a stigma. In 2018, for Mental Health Awareness Week, I spoke about this to what on the face of it were two very different – professional services and banks at Wharfability and at a roundtable for the construction sector. Yet for both the huge issue around talking about mental health was the fear of stigma and of being judged for admitting a “weakness”.
Most of us spend much of our life – or at least our waking life – at work. So, employers have a huge role to play in supporting their employees to manage their mental health and to support them through periods of mental ill health.
The first challenge for employers is they may very well not know that their employees have a mental health condition. If you are thinking now, does it matter whether you know? I’d say – where is people’s energy going? On doing the job – or hiding a condition or that they are struggling to cope? This is of course an issue for all conditions that are not immediately visible, but perhaps particularly so for mental health. Someone remarked to me recently that employers perceive mental health as a problem as they generally don’t find out that someone has a mental health condition until they are not coping or in crisis.
So, employers need to create a culture where it’s ok to talk about mental health and ask for what you need.
And there are lots of reasons why people might not tell you. Identity is deeply personal, and it can be an emotional process for someone to think about how they identify. People may not want the label of mental health or disability yet still need adjustments. In talking about mental health there is also the issue of effectively having to “come out” over and over again. People may choose not to tell or share their stories – and/or may want to wait until the right time to do so. They need to be sure that they will get the response they need; if people are going to tell you they have a mental health condition, the perceived benefits need to outweigh the risks.
So, what can we as senior leaders do about it?
It’s vital that the organisation’s overall culture supports positivity and stigma busting. We talk about encouraging a culture where people can be their “whole selves” at work and don’t feel they have to pretend to be something they are not. The language we use is really key here and too often it’s really negative. Ask people to “tell” or “share” – not “disclose” or “declare”. I often say you’d disclose points on your driving licence or declare that you are smuggling excess duty free. It’s certainly not positive. You also need to consider how your wider organisational messaging supports this, for example by not putting out a campaign about an “Iron Man” competition at the same time as a campaign around mental health wellbeing. That’s an extreme example, but if you have a culture which say has an expectation that people are always “on” and of long hours, that can undermine your messaging around mental health.
Better still, if you as a senior leader publicly endorses this approach and/or shares your experiences of mental ill health – either your own or those of loved ones – it is hugely powerful in communicating that it’s ok to talk about this around here. I also think there is a bigger piece here in changing the narrative – and reframing the mental health debate as us, not them. – it’s not them, it’s us. This first struck me back in June 2017, when I was speaking at a conference on mental health. I was on towards the end of the day and it struck me – as I said in my speech – that all day, the speakers had been talking about “them” – those people with mental health conditions. I pointed out that given the statistics – that 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health issue each year – it was likely that a quarter of those in the room were “us” not “them” – and that the “us” included me. Since then, I have started talking about my experiences of depression – not actually because I particularly need support but because I realized I was doing others a disservice by not being open.
Most recently I did a podcast – the first in our Identity series: “Who are we: The people behind the job titles” – which you can hear elsewhere in this toolkit – where I talked about having depression and having had an eating disorder. The experience itself was quite cathartic, but I didn’t really see it as a big deal until the next day a contact of mine gave me a big hug and told me he’d always struggled to talk about his mental health but now felt safe to do so.
Like it or not, what we as senior leaders do has a disproportionate impact on the people around us. It sets the tone. So, I would urge you to make mental health a priority and to communicate that to your teams. And – if you feel able and you want to do so – talk about your own experiences of mental health to get the conversation into the mainstream and make it feel safe for others to follow your lead.
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