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Employers must do more to protect the mental health of staff

This article was taken from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/12/employers-do-more-protect-mental-health-staff

By Camilla Nicholls

A healthy workplace is one where employees feel able to speak openly out about their mental health issues

I fought and lost a battle with my GP, who wanted to sign me off work. I didn’t feel I’d have a recognisable identity without my job; she said I might struggle to live if I didn’t take a break. I had five months off work. Sleep evaded me, eating felt a battle not worth winning, a psychiatrist made house calls every week, I found it almost impossible to leave my home. If only I had acted, sought help at work, before the total slide began.

Earlier this month, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) announced that, for the first time, work-related stress anxiety or depression accounts for over half of all working days lost due to ill health in Great Britain. In total, 15.4m working days were lost in 2017-18 as a result, up from 12.5m the previous year. These figures might be shocking but they’re not surprising. My breakdown had a complex cause, but one significant factor was my attitude to work.

None of us go into our jobs as blank slates, we all have emotional scars over which we hope work might neatly stick a plaster – insecurity, feelings of powerlessness, unresolved sibling rivalries. We often hope our jobs will fill otherwise unfillable holes. Therapy, 12 years of it on and off (and, while at the Guardian, scheduled at the crack of dawn so I did not miss a moment of work), has helped me to recognise I needed to be in demand. My unfulfilled maternal instincts were poured into my job and I allowed myself to get sucked dry. I felt there was no way I could tell my colleagues and superiors that I was depressed – I feared being thought of as weak, incapable. It did not occur to me to ask for time off for therapy.

Now I’m a psychotherapist. Not enough has changed. Too many of my patients tell me plainly that they fear being penalised in the workplace if they acknowledge their problems with mental health. Many, including the managing directors and chief executives I treat, seem to make up excuses for leaving work for their sessions. The most popular session times are early mornings and evenings – these get booked up very quickly.

It saddens me that corporations that invest in cut-price or free gym memberships to encourage a healthy workforce do not think of having a conversation about the equivalent for good mental health, despite the HSE figures and those that calculate the days lost to business in the billions of pounds.

It is evident to me that we are still in need of meaningful mental health support in all types of workplaces. HR departments need to be properly trained in recognising depression and addiction, in responding to the breakdown of relationships and bereavement and, importantly, know where to turn for trustworthy support. Everyone should have the right to attend therapy during their working day if required. An admission of vulnerability by senior figures in a workplace has the potential to foster more open dialogue about mental health and to help reduce the stigma associated with it. Each personal experience shared can help.

In a recent interview, Kamal Ahmed, the BBC’s then economics editor, now editorial director with responsibility for hundreds of staff, talked about how therapy had helped him remain afloat during a difficult divorce. Such honesty about the usefulness of