Mind Your Language – Changing the Conversation on Mental Health

This article is released ahead of World Mental Health Day. Content Warning: briefly discusses suicide

10th October is World Mental Health Day, a time when the focus of our attention is drawn towards raising awareness and opening a dialogue about how we think and feel.

This is seen by some as arbitrary – we should be comfortable having conversations around mental health every day. However, some companies still only ‘indulge’ their staff once every 365 days, so we have to take every opportunity we can get.

The reality is that many organisations still don’t focus on the mental health and well-being of their staff, even if they think or say they do. An email acknowledging World Mental Health Day might be all the recognition employees will receive; sadly, some don’t receive any at all. If anything, this highlights that we still have a long way to go.

Where people argue “we’ve come a long way”, you don’t have to look too far to see mental health stigma and discrimination is still pretty much every where you look.

It’s on the Twitter feed that calls people “snowflake” because someone talked about their feelings. It’s where a person is called “crazy” or “mental” because they have a different opinion. Or it’s the work colleague who, because they like tidy desk, is labelled as “a bit OCD”.

Whilst we navigate our way through a global health crisis, we have to be acutely aware that referring to stockpiling as “panic buying” derails conversations about anxiety itself. It means people don’t feel safe talking about the thoughts and feelings that cause them to behave in ways others don’t understand, because everyone’s too busy judging them. It’s also worth contemplating that where people are reacting in outrage to someone stockpiling or not wearing a mask, that’s just another form of panic.

Never, in the history of calming down, did anyone ever calm down, by being told to calm down.

When people are stressed the rational brain doesn’t work properly; this is now a well-established fact. We know that fight or flight literally switches off that part of our brain responsible for good decision making, rational thought and information processing, and we will instinctively take steps to ensure our survival.

We’ve probably all been guilty of falling into the trap of using unhelpful language or stereotyping others. But even if it wasn’t intentional, our unconscious biases can do damage. If a colleague suffering with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder heard their manager make fun with the “a bit OCD” comment, would they feel safe enough reaching out?

We need to recognise that intention isn’t impact. Just because we never mean to cause harm, doesn’t mean it wasn’t the result. Raising awareness then, is one of the best ways to encourage healthy dialogue and create meaningful change. But even when we know conversations about mental health are important, it’s also met with challenges.

When those of us show up to help keep the conversation on mental health inclusive and helpful, it’s often met with accusations of ‘political correctness’ or ‘jumping on the bandwagon’. Workplaces will insist on a ‘positive work culture’, telling employees to “keep calm and carry on”, which is translated by their staff as being expected to act happy, even when they’re not.

These attempts to derail the conversation highlights that many companies still aren’t comfortable with uncomfortable conversations, so they try to shut them down. In fact, according to a Gallop Survey in 2017, at least 3 in 10 employees agreed their opinions don’t count at work.

Meanwhile, people are literally dying because there aren’t enough safe spaces for people to talk about how they feel, especially when the culture of an organisation is toxic.

In November 2019, it emerged three employees at the East of England Ambulance Service died in less than two weeks. An inquest heard one employee took his own life while suffering from stress and anxiety. The Care Quality Commission (CQC) report found a “negative culture” and poor leadership left staff afraid to speak out against bullying and sexual harassment.

This isn’t unique to the NHS. These “negative cultures” are systemic in many organisations, especially large ones, where policies and procedures supersede healthy dialogue.

People are still told to “chin up, cheer up and man up”. 1-1’s are cancelled because managers say they’re “too busy”. Filling out an OH referral form is mandated, whereas sitting down over a brew and asking “are you sure you’re ok?” is seen as ‘pandering’ or ‘not my job’.

This is genuinely what people say they’ve been faced with, by the way. Employees are left dehumanised, feeling like a number or a line on a spreadsheet. And when things go wrong, those same organisations respond with “lessons have been learned”, citing another improvement plan or another policy review.

The conversation needs to change.

What can we do?

Uncomfortable conversations have to happen and organisations need to recognise that it’s not if they have a stigma or bias against mental heath, but how it’s taking shape in their organisation. It might be obvious, or it might be subtle; it might be overt or it might be insidious.

Here are some suggestions specific to the workplace for both employers and employees, as well as some other tips that might help.

• Look at the leadership style of the organisation. Is it focused on how staff spend their time, or is it mindful leadership that promotes task-oriented activities which trusts staff to get the job done, whilst we all navigate a worldwide pandemic? Many will be juggling work, home schooling and / or caring for sick relatives; does your organisation make room for that?

• Do managers cancel 1-1’s or do they make them a priority? Incidentally, a 1-1 should always focus on welfare not performance; the question “so, how are you?” should not come right at the end. A necessary performance related meeting should be planned and in the diary – well in advance – and nothing should ever come as a surprise. Whereas a 1-1 is a catch up over a cuppa when a leader sees that someone doesn’t seem themselves, or is just “checking in” to show they care. It only needs to offer listening and signposting.

• Do managers tell staff to “get it together” or “pull your socks up” or do they offer a culture that challenges unhelpful language which might be perpetuating stigma in the workplace?

• If your company offers an Employee Assistance Programme, do staff know what it actually is, and how to contact it without having to ask another member of staff or a manager for the number? Is it visible at work, and in communications? Are staff able to access this service anonymously, or do they have to go via Occupational Health? (If the latter, why?)

• Is the number for the Samaritans in prominent places, not just on the company intranet? It’s 116 123, no area code needed, and is a listening service available 24/7. Are services like this, and other agencies that can help, offered at team briefings or 1-1s?

• Is your occupational health team or HR department treating people like they’re flawed and need “fixing”, or is it creating safe spaces for people to talk, with clear pathways to help, without penalising them? For example, if staff are being disciplined for having poor mental health, it’s worth considering a) if workplace practices caused or contributed towards it and b) that mental health is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act that makes room for reasonable adjustments.

• Do managers feel confident having conversations at work with people who are going through a difficult time? If not, what training have you offered that aligns with your policy of well-being, and how are front line staff being supported by leaders in the organisation? Most importantly, did the senior leadership team go on that training first? Too often senior managers think it doesn’t apply to them. It does.

• If you’re an employee, ask your employer if they have developed a strategy or manifesto, that demonstrates a commitment to placing employee well-being at the top of their list. One way to demonstrate this would be a calendar of events in the company calendar, which might include, for example, a free online mindfulness class, or financial or legal advice. It could also be offering a series of well-being forums and safe spaces for people to offload. (See below).

• Develop employee focus groups, that can help inform the conversation at work. Instead of doing another Staff Survey, invite people to attend a meeting where their thoughts and views will be heard, and meaningful action taken. Do remember that Zoom Fatigue is an actual thing though. As a top tip, if your meetings are held online, and you have to introduce another policy about it, make sure it includes one that makes all meetings 50 minutes rather than an hour. That way everyone has at least 10 minutes to make a cuppa and go to the loo, before they dive into their next one.

• Think about peer support: like-minded people coming together sharing raw and real thoughts and feelings in a safe space. There’s no labelling or judging. There’s no ‘fix-it reflex’ that treats a person like they need to “keep their chin up”. It’s warmth, empathy, solidarity, and compassion in action.

• I am serious when I say this, but provide free tea and coffee for your staff that are in the office if they want it, or add a “well-being day” to their annual leave for those who are frontline or working from home. A specific day off dedicated to their well-being – on the company – recognises how much the organisation cares. Providing free refreshments is just one way to take meaningful action, but is also a way to encourage people (when they are in the workplace) to get up and have a conversation whilst the kettle boils. If the company cites “budgets” as the reason they can’t, quite simply they’re putting profits before people. All organisations can have space for a well-being budget if they make it a priority. To prove it can be done, a good example is Milton Keynes Hospital who provide not only free tea and coffee for all staff, but free parking too.

If a friend or colleague tells you they’re not doing ok, do try to resist the urge to ‘fix’ them, as this can give them the impression you just want to shut the conversation down. Here are some tips on how to help someone you’re worried about. Most importantly put your phone down and listen.

It’s more important than ever to normalise conversations around mental health, especially at work, and to show we care. With more and more people struggling with anxiety and feeling the effects of grief because of COVID-19, we can all do our bit to help. The world we are living in right now is anything but normal, and nothing – no thing – is more important than our mental health and well-being. Conversations start journeys and create platforms to open up and help reduce loneliness.

Most important of all is to take care of yourself when you or someone you know is going through a difficult time. It’s ok to pause and to give yourself permission to rest. It’s fine to say no, and as @Kaisocool said on Twitter recently “because I don’t want to” is an extremely valid reason.

“Lean in to the tough conversations. Brave leaders are never silent around hard things. Our job is to excavate the unsaid…and that requires courage and vulnerability. ~ Brené Brown.

Copyright Delphi Ellis 2020

About Delphi Ellis

Qualified Counsellor, Mental Health and Well-Being Trainer, and Mindfulness Practitioner. Creator of Monday Mojo™. Talks 'Lady Business', raising awareness of factors which predominantly affect Women's Mental Health like pregnancy and domestic abuse. Helping to improve the global conversation, and bring an end to stigma and shaming. Dream Explorer as seen on the telly. Avid tea drinker.
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