Mental illness is a serious workplace issue. Sam Fisher offers five tips to deal with colleagues who are suffering.
The term ‘mental health issue’ can be applied to a wide range of conditions and disorders that affect a person’s behaviour, emotions, and thought processes. Examples of mental illness include depression, addictive behaviour, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and severe phobias. It is common for people to occasionally have mental health concerns at one time or another, but this develops into a mental illness when symptoms are ongoing and affect a person’s ability to function properly.
In a study carried out by the mental health charity Mind, it has been estimated that one in four people experiences a mental health issue each year. If you consider the population of your working environment, the above statistic implies that 25% of them will have at least one mental health problem; a substantial percentage of the workforce. Now consider how many of the colleagues that you work with directly may be affected by mental health.
It’s a sensitive subject, especially in the workplace. But with mental illness affecting more and more people every year, it’s a subject we all need to be thinking about. Considering the needs of your colleagues affected by mental health issues and ensuring they are supported in their working life is not just common courtesy; it also facilitates a more inclusive working environment, which leads to a happier workforce, improved communication and increased productivity.
The following are some basic tips to help you better support colleagues who may be dealing with mental health illnesses.
1. Be aware that mental health problems are much more common than you may think. As many as 25% of people suffer with at least one mental health problem every year. Understanding that mental ill health affects a huge number of people can make you more conscious of your behavior in the workplace towards colleagues who may be distressed.
2. Accept that long-term mental health problems are classed as a disability. Many people are dismissive of sufferers, because they can’t see a physical problem. Mental illness can be just as debilitating as a physical disability, so try to be as supportive for those suffering from mental illness as you would be of a colleague suffering from a physical illness or incapacity.
3. Don’t try to minimize the problem. Telling someone to ‘cheer up’ or ‘pull themselves together’ makes their mental health problem sound trivial. Just as with a physical disability, people often need a combination of medication and therapy to help control the symptoms of their illness. Usually it involves a long and intensive process that can be very difficult for sufferers to go through.
4. Talk; don’t just talk about mental health. Communication is key, and opening up a dialogue about mental illness and mental health in your workplace can really help to raise awareness and develop a supportive environment. But don’t just talk about mental health. It’s important that your colleagues who may be dealing with a mental health problem don’t feel that their identity starts and ends with their illness. Talk about things you would discuss with other colleagues rather than just focusing on their mental illness and how they are currently feeling.
5. Be patient. As with a physical illness, the journey to recovery can be a long one. Sometimes there are good days and sometimes there are set-backs. Your colleagues need to know that they are supported in this recovery regardless of how long it may take.
This list is by no means exhaustive. If your colleagues are willing, you can help by asking them if they need support in particular areas or what you can do to be more supportive. The most important thing is that you try your best to be understanding. Not everyone gets it right, but making an effort will show that you want to help and that you care.