Those of us working in the business of reducing the stigma around mental health seem to be in agreement – in part at least – the tide is changing; prominent people in society, including high performing senior business leaders and our royal family are talking openly about mental health and the impact on them as individuals. Progress is being made in the workplace. Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week and all over the country workplaces held seminars, panel discussions, promoted This is Me, and even the historic Bank of England building turned green in support.
But awareness alone won’t change culture. Neither will senior management’s public endorsement. Many of us will still associate ‘mental health’ with ‘illness’, even if we embrace our colleague with a history of anxiety and depression as an essential member of the team. If a mental health strategy is only focussed on disclosure statistics, first aid or how to manage ‘crisis’, then, in our attempt to remove stigma, we simply reinforce our compass setting that mental health is about illness. The hidden costs to our business of presenteeism and avoidable attrition will continue as employees and managers fail to value and respond to signs that there may be a deterioration in good mental health and take early steps to intervene before it becomes an illness.
We’ll start to change culture when every employee starts to recognise mental health as simply part of being human and interpret the term as referring to good mental health. Improving mental health literacy by dispelling myths and assumptions is the first stage in removing this stigma, but we also need to equip employees and particularly line managers with the skills to manage mental health as an integral part of the workplace rather than just react to it; how to have an open conversation, how to accommodate reasonable adjustments and particularly, how to manage mental health alongside performance. When this is part of every employee induction and leadership training programme, then we’ll really start to see the dial shift towards parity with physical health.