Every day workplaces are becoming better at dealing with mental health, but there is still more work to be done. What can we do, as colleagues, to keep moving forward?
We’re treating symptoms, not the disease
Over the years, I’ve told my story too many times to count. Depression, suicide attempts, eating disorders, therapy, medication… it all gets a bit repetitive when you’ve lived with it for over half your life. But this is the truth of mental illness. It exists in many of our – and our colleagues’ – own lives. So why is it still taboo to talk about at work?
In recent years workplaces have become more knowledgeable on mental illness, and society more accepting, but unfortunately mental and physical health are still often equated as unequal. This is the larger scale change we must work together to combat. Perhaps this is, in part, due to a lack of understanding about the different levels of mental health.
Not all mental illnesses can be cured
Managing my own mental health is something I have to do on a daily basis. It’s something I’ve had to teach myself over the last ten years (I am 22 now). I am, to sum it up, always going to be depressed. My mental health is a daily battle. Sometimes it is hard, and sometimes it is really hard.
While the majority of mental disorders can be treated (the World Mental Health Organisation found that 80% of people with schizophrenia and up to 60% of people with depression can fully recover with the right treatment) – for some people like myself, mental illness is simply a genetic part of you, and no amount of breathing techniques and mood tracking will cure that. Tailored therapy, regulated medication and self-care can undoubtedly help, but from an outsider’s perspective, it’s easy to assume that all mental illnesses will go away after treatment.
My mental illness is something that will always be a part of me, on a literal, cellular level, and learning to co-exist with it is the best coping mechanism I have ever taught myself. It is undeniable that prescribed medication enables me to co-exist with it, rather than have it take over, but constantly fighting a battle that (for some people) cannot be won is half the exhaustion of mental illness. It isn’t about giving in to the illness, but about living alongside it and learning when to push through, and when to give myself the leeway to have a bad episode and just be gentle on myself.
For some employees, a few weeks off and some NHS counselling is not always enough, and not everything can be ‘fixed’. If an employee has a chronic mental illness, that is something they are living with – and their employer needs to live with it too. The best thing employers and colleagues can do for people with chronic mental illnesses is to try and understand that. So where do we begin?
Mental wellbeing ≠ mental health
The first thing we can do is recognise that there is a difference between mental wellbeing and mental health. With employers drawing more attention to wellbeing in the workplace, organisations are starting to increase the wellbeing options available to employees – gym memberships, zen spaces, work-from-home schemes and casual clothing policies – many businesses are implementing these changes to aid their employees’ overall wellbeing.
As colleagues, though, it’s our responsibility to recognise that a co-worker struggling with stress at work and relationship issues at home may need further help with their mental wellbeing – perhaps talking to their manager about their workload and taking a day off to spend at home. While an employee struggling with bipolar disorder would also benefit from those things, they may also need to engage with counselling or visit the doctor for a medication review. Some companies may not yet have the capacity to implement mental health training or wellbeing benefits, but as employees, we can still make changes and do more for ourselves or co-workers suffering with mental illness.
Mental illness is not a standardised format
In their lifetime, one in four people will suffer with some form of mental illness – whether it’s diagnosed or not; whether it’s a lifelong genetic condition, or passing and situational. As mental illness is becoming less taboo in society, it’s also more apparent that many people are only familiar with more ‘common’ mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. But what about other mental illnesses? What about debilitating eating disorders, crippling OCD or personality disorders?
It’s understandable that people tend to gravitate towards understanding more relatable mental illnesses, like anxiety and depression – after all, most of us have experienced feelings of nervousness or sadness. But mental illness is more complex than those feelings everyone can relate to, and we should work to redirect this emphasis across all mental illness types, severity and experiences.
The reality of living with mental illness
If a colleague of yours is struggling with mental illness, it’s okay if you cannot relate or understand. Mental illness is confusing and overwhelming; and not just to the person suffering. Our work to remove stigma around mental health should also cover the guilt and embarrassment non-sufferers feel when confronted with mental illness from a friend or colleague. If you’ve never dealt with that situation before, or aren’t sure how to respond, that’s okay. If you’re uncomfortable, that’s okay too. But not understanding something doesn’t mean we should be afraid to tackle it.
Whether it’s not showering for ten days, cancelling plans, being unable to get out of bed or feeling overwhelmed by cleaning your house – the everyday reality of mental illness is draining and ugly. If your co-workers are late yet again, or working from home for the fourth time that week – consider that perhaps they are struggling with more than you know. Where possible, help your colleagues with their workloads, don’t question them for days off or lack of conversation. You can offer to spend a break with them and talk about it or just check in each day. Above all, be clear that you will support them as long as this lasts – even if that’s for their entire employment.
What are the take-aways?
If a colleague is in a wheelchair – whether this is a temporary measure that will heal, or a permanent change that is with them for life – we would, where possible, help adjust their working life, environment and responsibilities accordingly. We need to treat mental health in the same way. If a colleague is struggling with a mental illness – whether this is a temporary, situational episode, or a chronic lifelong condition – we must help adjust their work life. Above all, as co-workers; as humans, we must not be afraid to learn, understand, and work out how best to support our colleagues who are suffering with mental illness.