Managers can do more to challenge the stigma of mental ill health

It will affect one in four of us, but mental illness remains a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace – something we can change, says the Business Disability Forum’s Bela Gor.

One in four people will experience some kind of mental health issue at some point in their life. Yet, despite its prevalence, mental illness remains a taboo subject, with many people fearing they will be seen as weak or even shunned if they discuss their condition.

When the subject is aired – particularly in the tabloid press – people with mental ill health are often ridiculed. The Sun’s headline after ex-boxer Frank Bruno’s stay at a psychiatric hospital read “Bonkers Bruno locked up”. More recently, the newspaper headlined a story about distressed “Britain’s Got Talent” contestant Susan Boyle with the catchy “SuBo goes loco”.

quotemarksIs it any surprise that a recent study revealed that 71% of people with depression actively hide it from others?”

Is it any surprise that a study reported in The Lancet late last year revealed that 71% of people with depression actively hide it from others? Or that 79% claimed they had been discriminated against at some point in their lives?

The taboo against a reasoned discussion of mental health also extends to the workplace – nearly half of people with depression in the same study expected to be discriminated against in finding or keeping a job.

Help for employers

Organisations, however, can challenge this stigma by the way in which they manage people with mental health difficulties in the workplace, and Business Disability Forum’s new guide, “Mental health at work”, will help them to do it.

The guide, sponsored by the Environment Agency, has been written for line managers, whether they are in charge of one person, a team or even a whole organisation. Its aim is to help them become better managers of people with mental ill health. It also challenges common assumptions and attitudes about mental health, helping managers to look after their own wellbeing.

A mental health condition can manifest itself at any time in a person’s life. The types can be bewildering – from anxiety to bipolar disorder, self-harm or schizophrenia – but managers do not require a medical background to make a difference.

However, they do need to know how to manage the effects of a condition on someone at work, in the same way as they manage the effects of a physical health issue such as diabetes.

Episodes of mental ill health can be triggered by events as diverse as unemployment, a divorce or bereavement, but in other cases there is no apparent cause. Managers must not discriminate between what appears to be a case of “justifiable depression” and people who seem to have no reason to be depressed.

Everyone is different and there is no set period for “getting over” a life event. Some people will recover, others will not. And many have fluctuating conditions, which means that there will be periods when they are well and times when they are not.

Fear of discrimination

People who accept that they have a mental health problem and are willing to talk about it are easier to manage. But many employees will not tell colleagues or managers about their condition because they fear they may encounter discrimination. For some, it will be because they have not yet realised that they have a problem.

Managers can play a key role in encouraging people to be open about their mental health. But they should not always wait for a person to approach them. Out-of-character behaviour – whether it is in the form of irritability, increased consumption of alcohol or even uncharacteristic exuberance and working long hours – may signify that there could be a problem that managers need to consider how to address.

Managers need to prepare for any meetings with the individual and equip themselves with examples of the behaviour that has been causing concern. They must listen carefully to what the person has to say. Showing both tact and empathy are vital.

quotemarksManagers can play a key role in encouraging people to be open about their mental health.”

However, the role of the manager extends further than offering kind words. Employers have a legal obligation to make “reasonable adjustments” – which can include changes to the way people work or to their working environment – for both physically and learning-disabled people.

There are many adjustments that may improve the working life of a person with mental ill health, including greater flexibility over when and where they work. Managers need to talk to the person and find out what works best for him or her.

Severe problems

On rare occasions, a manager may be confronted by severe problems – this could be a person who says he or she feels suicidal or who displays unacceptable behaviour.

Such problems will tax the abilities of managers but must not be avoided, although in the most serious cases a manager may need assistance. Contacting HR or senior management may be appropriate if a person threatens physical violence, while people who express suicidal feelings should be encouraged to consult an OH adviser or contact an organisation such as the Samaritans.

Talking to a person who exhibits signs of mental ill health is not easy, but it is an essential part of a manager’s job.

“Mental health at work” offers managers the advice, support and practical tips they need to become better managers of people with mental health conditions – whatever they may be.

Bela Gor is legal director at Business Disability Forum.

The Business Disability Forum is a not-for-profit member organisation that aims to make it easier and more rewarding to do business with and employ disabled people. Its members employ almost 20% of the UK workforce and, together, they seek to remove the barriers between employers and disabled people. You can order “Mental health at work” by email or by calling 020 7403 3020.

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