Workplace wellbeing: a no-brainer?

Taking steps to enhance wellbeing in the workplace seems like a no-brainer. It can improve productivity, create happy teams and generally make Monday mornings feel worth getting out of bed for. If you are contending with mental health problems, it can make finding your workplace ‘zen’ even more pressing yet, unfortunately, harder to achieve.

Earlier this year the McPin Foundation carried out research that explored what it was like to find work, and, be in work for people in London who consider themselves to have mental health problems that affect their daily lives. There was a focus on exploring what this was like for people who identify as belonging to an ethnic minority. The study was called Thrive.

We found that stigma and discrimination towards mental health was rife in the workplace. The types of discrimination people faced when they decided to be more open ranged from the subtle to gross – muted silence to, in one case, dismissal. Such reactions only exasperate feeling of isolation, or being different, often felt by people affected by mental health problems or minorities at work.

The fear of disclosure and potential backlash was a big issue. We found some of this was driven by prevailing social perceptions of mental health, whereas for others it was down to the lack of awareness or compassion in their organisational cultures.

“Stigma is a huge issue for me because I feel like I’m scared to disclose because of these preconceived ideas that society has about people with mental disorders in terms of them being erratic and lazy and unintelligent……If I disclose that information, are they going to look down on me or treat me differently or be scared of me?”

We found employees from ethnic minorities often faced multiple layers of stigma and discrimination. Two women spoke of the particular shame and guilt attached to experiencing mental health problems that emanate from their own cultures.

“I’m Afro-Caribbean so……I found that people would say, “Well it’s because you’re possessed,” or, “Voodoo was done on you,” just the whole to do with maybe spiritual, not abiding by Godly principles. You’re being punished…”

There was an upside though. Our research demonstrated that facing multiple barriers led to greater self-reliance and resilience. Almost as if being shunned and shamed by your home community injects a boldness of expression at work – an environment that may not be fully awake to mental health, but at least is not shutting the door in your face. I spoke to individuals who had organised mental health awareness events, mentored colleagues in their lunch breaks and challenged unfair treatment through a tribunal. Being a self-starter is fantastic for challenging stigma and working towards the normalisation of mental health but there are other forms of workplace wellbeing that can only be initiated from above. Things that are actually lawful but not always implemented.

The Thrive survey found that forms of support employees found consistently helpful at work were reasonable adjustments such as; flexible working, late starts, working from home and phased return to work after a period of time off. Having an understanding or knowledgeable boss was also beneficial. The desire for a workplace mentor or counsellor – someone impartial and removed from the day to day grid was spoken of as desirable but seldom available. Having a mental health issue means you often have to juggle multiple internal and external challenges alongside stigma. Medical appointments, medication effects, stressors that may seem trivial to other – such as travelling on a rush hour train, or participating in a meeting with anxiety can be exhausting and sometimes feel impossible. Raising awareness of such factors through training is another way to alleviate the pressure from the individual having to be the one to work hard to be understood.

Campaigns such World Mental Health Day and Time to Change are shifting public discourse about mental health, stigma and wellbeing in the right direction as brave individuals willing to stand up and be counted as employees with rights. Still, more needs to be done. The current Government has made a promising commitment to further protect those facing discrimination at work, this needs to be back up with action such as the announced changes to the Equalities Act. The proposed changes will protect conditions that may be intermittent, this combined with the recent scrapping of tribunal fees will make employers think twice before discriminating against an employee. However, it is more ideal that employers and managers are educated about their responsibilities and their employees’ rights in the first instance as well as the benefits of providing a supportive working environment that is good for all their employee’s, including those who have ongoing mental health needs.