When you catch a cold or fever, do you say you are sick, or that your physical health isn’t good?
When an employee isn’t feeling well, do they avail sick leaves, or physical health leaves?
But when it comes to not feeling good emotionally and mentally, we want to amplify mental health leaves?
The global workforce and leadership have been tip-toeing around mental health, with little to negligible focus on mental illness, as well as the many forms of feeling mentally and emotionally unwell, which are beyond the scope of what is covered under clinical mental illnesses. There has been movement in addressing mental health, but not as much on mental health issues.
A significant chunk of mental well-being initiatives have been focused on creating awareness and establishing a business case around the impact of mental wellness on productivity, in the hopes to draw sincere attention to this grave concern. And in the process, we lost sight of the need for awareness on mental illness, how individuals cope and co-exist with these conditions, and the role of employers in supporting their employees as they battle mental illness.
This piece dives into what mental illness and mental health encapsulate, the impact of underlying mental health concerns on day-to-day functioning of the workforce and exploring the various facets of mental health beyond burnout.
We are making the same mistake again
Similar to how a large number of employers assume employee engagement to be ‘fun at work’, a large number also believe that mental health is about excessive workload and stress. This mindset reinforces the belief that if workload is managed efficiently, it would lead to better mental health, and consequently improved productivity.
Managing mental health sure would lead to enhanced productivity, but that is an outcome, not the purpose of ensuring mental health.
We don’t ask employees to drive safely to ensure they are able to show up at work and work efficiently, do we? So why discriminate? Though there are campaigns around mental health awareness, they barely scratch the surface. Conversations at the workplace still tip-toe and try to find the positives, without delving deeper into the intricacies of mental health - mental illness - and associated concerns.
While mental health has been described as "a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community", mental illness on the other hand, is “a general term for a group of illnesses that may impact a person's thoughts, perceptions, feelings and behaviours.” An article by an Australian healthcare channel, further states that mental illness can affect working and personal relationships, and identifies some of the most common mental illnesses as:
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Panic disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Eating disorders
- Bipolar disorder
While the aforementioned conditions are the most commonly known, it is not an exhaustive list. The extent and impact would vary from person to person.
In the absence of good mental health, there is a drop in a person’s ability, capacity and drive to function or communicate with any other person.
They don’t feel like talking to anyone, don’t respond to messages, cancel plans, and while they might be able to disconnect from personal relationships with lesser challenges, the ability or privilege to disconnect from work doesn’t come easy. Why? Because workplaces haven’t yet made room for conversations such as, “I don’t think I have the mental capacity to work today” or even “I don’t feel like working today”. And no, this isn’t about laziness. This is about internal drive and ability to function rationally, which are likely to be impacted - in some cases become non-existent - when a mental health issue is at play.
Looking beyond burnout
For months now, the global economy has been striving to improve the mental well-being of the workforce, specifically, trying to help employees cope with the stressors of the pandemic and take some time to recoup. That sure is needed, however, more needs to be done for meaningful effect.
Are we having conversations on:
- Pre-existing mental health concerns and how individuals living with them are coping
- A spike in anxiety when employees are asked to turn on cameras
- Coping with the immense mental strain fueled by the pandemic
- Sharing how therapy helped us cope, beyond handing helpline numbers
Exhaustion, stress and burnout, are add-ons for many professionals all across the globe, with many struggling to minimize the work-life conflict and deal with pressing, pre-existing mental health issues. And organizations are taking steps to deal with the uptick of these add-ons. However, the inability or unwillingness to acknowledge the existence of mental illness is forcing individuals to put up an act of “normalcy” while they feel crushed and remain restless emotionally.
Enabling openness and psychological safety for honest conversations
In a benchmarking poll by Total Brain, 86% of respondents stated that they want their employer to build a corporate culture that encourages more candid conversations about mental health and associated challenges.
Total Brain cites earlier research by the American Psychiatric Association which showed over half of US workers were not comfortable talking about mental health in the workplace and over a third were anxious about the consequences of bringing it up.
“Measuring and benchmarking mental health issues within an organization; bringing conversations to the forefront; and encouraging your employees, especially those in leadership positions, to open up about their own challenges has never been more important,” said Louis Gagnon, CEO of Total Brain. Gagnon added that while many employers and leaders exhibit empathy and understanding, they’re not fully aware of the “range of issues and challenges their employees are facing; nor the fear employees have about coming forward seeking help.”
While role modeling conversations is crucial, it would be unfair to expect leaders to open up about their personal challenges, especially in the absence of psychological safety that keeps employees from opening up as well. In such scenarios, leaders being human too, would feel as vulnerable and exposed, as employees. So how do we do it?
Among the many ways to foster psychological safety, a key mechanism is to break down the misconceptions and educate the workforce. A lack of understanding is a key contributor to the ignorance we often display, which could be unintentional too. Which is why educating the workforce, as well as leadership on mental health issues is crucial to drive meaningful change and foster a safe workplace that paves the way for honest conversations, and eliminates the sense of threat to acceptance by peers, job security and career path in the organization.
The time to act is now
“After decades of neglect and underinvestment in mental health services, the COVID-19 pandemic is now hitting families and communities with additional mental stress. Those most at risk are frontline healthcare workers, older people, adolescents and young people, those with pre-existing mental health conditions and those caught up in conflict and crisis. We must help them and stand by them.
Even when the pandemic is brought under control, grief, anxiety and depression will continue to affect people and communities. Policies must support and care for those affected by mental health conditions, and protect their human rights and dignity.
I urge governments, civil society, health authorities and others to come together urgently to address the mental health dimension of this pandemic.”
The above was the background to the policy brief on COVID-19 and mental health that was launched by the United Nations in May 2020. A year later, we have made progress, however, are yet to tackle mental well-being for everything it encompasses.
There is an urgent need to bring immediate attention to a much needed alteration in how the global economy is addressing mental illness and mental health, to have any chance at beating the looming psychological pandemic.
We must not let the lines blur and remember that mental well-being is about the health of an individual, not a stock check on their capabilities and limitations or a function of their workload.