Wednesday 8 July 2015

Transitioning out of university: how to open up a dialogue about mental health difficulties at work

That time of year has arrived when lots of students will be graduating (well done!) and starting to think about the transition out of university and into the world of work. Rosie, a member of our Exec Committee, has written this blog to help people in the workplace to start the conversation both as an employee and as a manger.

- Rosie Driffill

Despite society’s ever-increasing understanding surrounding mental health, telling a colleague or boss that you are experiencing mental health difficulties can be challenging. Below are some ideas to help managers and employees enter into a meaningful dialogue and bring about positive and sustainable change in the workplace.

I’m used to talking about mental health difficulties. Many of my close friends and I have experienced it, while friends that haven’t understand what is a shrinking yet sadly ever-present stigma towards it and, like me, rally against it at every turn. I read publications and work for charities that also seek to remove negative perceptions of mental health difficulties, so I can at times feel so saturated with a positive message that I reel a little when somebody expresses a view that lacks the same degree of empathy or understanding. When it comes to discussing mental health difficulties at work, however, even someone who is well-versed in identifying and talking openly about their experiences may struggle to ask for support, or simply disclose what they are going through. 

Poor mental health costs the economy in England £105 billion each year, with both resulting sickness absence and under-performance at work accounting for almost a fifth of that total. In a climate in which we are as yet unsure as to where the Conservatives’ projected £12bn of welfare cuts will fall, the workplace needs to reform itself in order to accommodate a culture in which employees are not afraid to seek help; help which may take the form of adjustments to your working life, given the uncertainty surrounding access to services. Here is a guide for employees and employers for talking about mental health at work:

If you are an employee:

Consider the kind of changes that would help you – Employers are duty-bound by law to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace for someone experiencing mental health difficulties (see below). Before you meet with your employer, consider what kind of adjustments might help you on a day-to-day basis. These changes will vary from person to person and you may not need to take time off in order to look after your mental health; coming to work a little late or taking more regular breaks may suit you. If you’re not sure what kind of changes might help, speak to your employer about adjustments that you could trial, and always arrange a series of follow-up meetings to review their effectiveness. 

Consider how much, when and where you want to disclose – It may seem obvious, but try to arrange a time when you and your employer can talk without being disturbed. This is more his/her responsibility than it is yours, but if your employer offers you ten minutes just before lunchtime, push them for a more reasonable time that is going to allow for maximum scope for putting a realistic plan together. 

Remember, you’re not obliged to disclose every detail of your mental health difficulties, but be honest with your boss in terms of how you are currently managing at work. It may be the case that you do need time off, in which case you are in a position to negotiate a period of time that you have considered prior to the meeting and may have spoken to your GP about. Again, you are not expected to recover in that time and nor should that be expected of you, so be clear with your boss that any period of absence is not tantamount to a healing process. 

Be clear on your rights – Not all employers will invest the same degree of attention and understanding in these conversations, and disclosure will not always elicit a positive response. However, an employer cannot discriminate against you on the grounds of mental illness. The Equality Act – which applies to all employers in the UK – protects people from discrimination because of a disability, and even though you might not consider yourself to be disabled, if problems with your mental health seriously impact your wellbeing over a long period of time, then it may be dealt with as a disability under this law. Advicenow have put together a document called ‘Is That Discrimination?’ to assist workers in distinguishing between forms of unfair treatment. The law also stipulates that employees are required to make reasonable adjustments in order to support employees who are experiencing mental health difficulties. Rethink Mental Illness have put together this guide to which adjustments ought to be considered reasonable. 

If you don’t want to share – Mental health difficulties can be an extremely private and sensitive matter for some people and talking about them with somebody with whom you don’t have much of a rapport can seem daunting. The climate in the workplace is currently such that stress levels – along with targets – are high, and it is increasingly deemed to be ‘the norm’ that employees must operate in line with this culture. This is unacceptable; if you are finding it hard to cope, but don’t feel comfortable discussing your mental health, speak to your employer about reducing stress levels in your work environment. From more open communication to better scope for sharing your workload, there may be changes that can be made to make your working day more manageable. 

If you are an employer:

Create a culture of acceptance – Fostering a workplace culture in which mental health difficulties are not perceived to be a sign of weakness can help reduce feelings of shame an employee experiencing mental health difficulties may feel. Robust policies can serve as a good starting point, the content of which should be explained to employees when they start their contract, as well as visible leaflets on where to seek help. Something as simple as calling people out on any negative comments made about mental health difficulties can encourage employees to come forward, as it gives out the message that they will be taken seriously. 

Exercise discretion – Always allow ample time and space to discuss sensitive matters including an employee’s health. It may not be the case that you can offer a lot of time to somebody on the day that they request it, but be open with the person about your present limitations while assuring them that you will arrange a time for the two of you to talk where you will not be disturbed. 

Do your research – Time to Change, Rethink Mental Illness, Student Minds and Mind have all produced guides on how to talk to somebody about their mental health. You may have known your employee years and have what you consider to be a close relationship with them. Think about the way you talk about mental health. Phrases such as ‘you just don’t seem depressed because you’re so upbeat,’ or ‘well, we’re all a little anxious at the moment’ can stymie any meaningful dialogue and discourage further disclosure. 

Follow things up – There is no one-size-fits-all support plan when it comes to mental health difficulties, so be sure to arrange a series of follow-up meetings with your employee so that, firstly, you can both review the help you have put in place and, secondly, that person knows you have their interests at heart and are genuinely interested in their remaining within the company. Fear of dismissal or negative reactions can deter people from seeking the right help, so an empathic employer can prove to be an invaluable component in someone’s recovery.

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