Your Thoughts: Why is Mental Health Still Taboo at Work? – Lawyer Monthly | Legal News Magazine

Your Thoughts: Why is Mental Health Still Taboo at Work?

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week across the globe, and is an opportunity to highlight serious misunderstandings about mental health, especially in the workplace.

A recent survey asked 1,104 British adults in full-time employment about their attitudes to mental health. Around 49% said they would likely not tell their boss about problems such as anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder.

Below Lawyer Monthly hears from a number of specialists on the stigma attached to mental health issues and just why it still persists as a workplace taboo.

David Brudö, CEO and Co-Founder, Remente:

Unfortunately there is still a stigma attached to having a mental health problem, and often employees would rather not acknowledge them or don’t have the right tools and understanding of how to handle these issues. Efforts in mental health are focused on healthcare as opposed to wellbeing, and the suffering that this caused people because they didn’t have the correct tools to manage their mental wellbeing.

I have personally experienced mental health issues at work. I started my own business in e-commerce a few years ago, but as much joy as you get from running your own business, it can be stressful and demanding. My work was all-consuming and I wasn’t prepared for the mental strain of running my own business. It reached a point that I had a lot of work-related stress, I was really burnt out and eventually hit a brick wall. I didn’t know where to turn to at this point, eventually seeking psychological help. This is also a reason why I developed the app, with the aim to help individuals and businesses achieve their full potential with the help of a digital tool.

I want to democratise mental wellbeing. While many businesses have done a lot to ensure that the physical health of their employees is at the forefront, not enough has been done to put mental wellbeing on a level with the physical.

Companies should also adapt their working practices to help those suffering from mental health conditions, and give more room for an open discussion of mental health problems.

Mental health is a sensitive subject, many don’t want to talk about their problems, especially at work, where it is harder to approach the subject. According to a study by a mental health charity, 95% of employees that call in sick due to stress gave another reason.

Rhiannon Cambrook-Woods, Managing Director, Zest Recruitment & Consultancy LLP:

The legal sector is synonymous with being a high-pressure and demanding environment. But the perception that career progression is the reserve of those who can consistently demonstrate the ability to thrive in these conditions, without recourse, means that some lawyers may be afraid to come forward and admit to experiencing any form of mental health issue; they would rather suffer in silence than ‘risk’ jeopardising their future prospects. It is a fear of failure, a fear of stand still.

Perhaps the biggest reason why mental health remains taboo is because of the way in which the legal sector itself has evolved in recent years. There has been a spate of mergers and acquisitions over the last few years, with smaller firms looking to go regional or national, national firms looking to diversify or eye up global expansion, or the merger simply happened because of financial pressures.

On the face of it, these are sound strategic moves but what they highlight is the degree to which the legal sector has become increasingly competitive. As firms face the constant pressure to be better, offer more and become more financially sound it is the lawyers on the ground that bear the brunt of this growing demand.

While awareness of mental health is certainly increasing, more should be done to overcome many of the misconceptions that people have. Employers and employees alike need to be better educated on what it means to suffer from a mental health issue. They need to understand why unhelpful comments such as ‘cheer up’ or ‘pull yourself together’ are unacceptable – sufferers can’t simply ‘snap out of it’.

There also needs to be a marked shift in the way that mental health is positioned in the workplace. It needs to be made clear that mental and emotional health is taken just as seriously as physical health. Employees also need to know who they can speak or turn to for support and help. The greater the awareness and better the understanding, the easier it will be for sufferers to come forward and get the help they need and that benefits not just the individual, but the rest of team and firm too.

Susan Scott, business psychologist and author of ‘How To Have An Outstanding Career’,

You’ve got it all wrong! Mental health is not a serious, possibly dangerus personality disorder such as manic depression, schizophrenia or psychosis that may tell an employer you’re not up for the job. Mental health is actually positive. When your mind is working well, you can think clearly and focus. You feel ‘on the ball’ and can cope well with pretty well whatever’s thrown at you. The taboo is there because it hasn’t been properly defined!

Worse still – the taboo exists because it’s related to the mental conditions mentioned above, yet these only accounts for about 10% of cases. But that isn’t the whole story.

Mental ill-health is more commonly down to stress, anxiety and depression.

Lawyers are stressed – it’s official! They work long hours doing intensive work and this puts their health and career at risk. Recent research of Young Professionals conducted across all sectors in April 2017 to coincide with the launch of my new book – How To Have An Outstanding Career –showed 29% feel unable to cope with the pressures and demands of the job. It’s likely to be even higher for young lawyers based on my experience of working with Young Professionals in this industry.

Young lawyers are typically hard working, driven, intelligent, competitive and highly aspirational. Above all they are tenacious, and keep on doing what they need to do to get to where they want to get to…and it’s this that causes the stress. Yet the reality is if they burnout their career is cut short almost before it has started and their employer also suffers because they lose valuable talent.

My experience working with young lawyers has found the following:

  1. They do what they think they should do to look good– not necessarily what they’ve been told to do. In other words, they create their own perception of reality. Examples of this are not leaving the office at the end of the day at a reasonable time because partners are still there and might think bad of them, yet no one has said they have to stay. Not saying ‘no’ to a request from a partner when they’re actually too overloaded to fulfil that request, but fear it would be a black mark on their career to refuse. Interestingly many talk about how they respect the people that do say no – you know where you are with them!
  2. Most I have worked with recently talk of having no personal life. It’s all about work… and worse still, billable hours. At 17 when they chose their career they were so excited and passionate but by 25 they’ve lost purpose in life – it’s merely about getting through it and not showing any sign of weakness – survival of the fittest!
  3. Many doubt they are worthy of the role they have. Something we call Imposter Syndrome. They’re convinced they’ll be found out soon so do everything within their power to work hard so they don’t get found out.
  4. They’re bright and intelligent and fear making mistakes – they’re perfectionists. Just misspelling one word in a contract will leave them beating themselves up for days.
  5. They don’t feel supported by the line manager and feel they just have to get on with it. This ‘going it alone’ as a young professional exacerbates stress. My survey showed 17% of young professionals feel that their line manager does not appreciate or value them.

Clearly, I would argue that this leads to a toxic situation and culture within many firms. The answers are complex, but a good start can be made if partners and managers really take the time to listen to their staff…and avoid judging them, when they express doubts and worries.

Dr David Lewis, Co-Founder, The Mind Changers:

In the 17th century, the wealthy would flock to asylums, such as St Mary’s Bethlem (the original Bedlam) to be entertained by the antics of their inmates.  However, today we are more likely to stigmatise than to mock.

Mental health is still a taboo as those who are, or have been, mentally ill are perceived as different, disturbing and potentially dangerous.

With a few exceptions (the scars of self-harming for example) the mentally ill differ from the well only in their behaviour and utterances. This combination of sameness and otherness is, for some, profoundly disconcerting.

Sufferers are often blamed for their condition. They have behaved badly, for example by taking drugs or drinking to excess, or have become possessed by the devil.

The mentally ill are also seen, as WWI psychiatrists’ put it, of ‘lacking moral fibre’. Anxiety, for example, is considered a sign of weakness in men and hysteria in women.

Such ignorance adds to the unease felt by many. Lurid headlines about ‘madmen wielding axes’ can quickly transform that unease into fear.

“As you are now so once was I,” runs the epitaph on an old gravestone. To which we might add: “As I am now so may you be…”

Remembering this truth may help the mentally healthy to stigmatise less in the workplace and empathise more.

Wyn Morgan, Founder, Wynning:

It’s mental health awareness week – so a very timely week to look at this important issue. What makes it important? According to the The Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey published in 2016 (the most quoted survey on Mental Health matters, and used by the mental Health Foundation); 1 in 6 respondents said they had a mental health problem in the week prior to taking the survey. That’s not 1 in 6 anytime – that’s 1 in 6 in a given week! Over 43% of respondents of adults think that they have had a diagnosable mental health condition at some point in their life. Any yet we are more likely to talk about our sex life, salary and bank balance than our mental health.

While thankfully it is changing, and becoming less of a taboo, given how it is likely to be affecting many people you know directly right now, and will affect many more during their lives (approximately 77,400 readers of this very publication in fact) – it’s time we all quit feeling we can’t talk about this.

In talking with corporations and individuals about the link between mental wellbeing and performance at work for the past 16 years, it’s struck me how often people feel ashamed to admit their stresses, their anxiety, worries, depression etc.

I recently held an optional session on stress at the end of a training workshop on ‘What drives performance at work’. I had no idea how many would attend this bonus session. All but one of the 18 participants stayed until 9pm to learn the truth about stress (and the one who didn’t stay had a prior commitment). It shows to me, that given the opportunity, people are willing to talk and share their mental health experiences. We need to make it ok to do it and to offer people the environment to be open.

One reason we don’t talk is that we think we are to blame and that we are weak to suffer from any mental health issue.

I’m delighted to tell everyone I speak with that they are wrong. No one is to blame for whatever they are facing. In no way does it make us weak. Let’s take each one in turn.

Blame? Seriously, did anyone ‘will’ a mental health issue on themselves? No. It’s a complete myth. We are all off the hook when it comes to this – none of us ‘had it coming to us’ due to karma, superstition, genetics or anything else.

Weak? No one who suffers from a medical health issue is facing it due to being weak. The lack of mental wellbeing can strike anyone and everyone at any time. It is as undiscerning as any randomly occurring disease.

Can you recover? Yes. Absolutely. Can anyone resume work normally? Yes. Absolutely.

Anyone who has a mental health issue is guilty of one thing and one thing only – being human. It’s time we stopped thinking otherwise.

Talking openly about mental wellness and mental health issues will stop it being a taboo and help people get the support they need to get back to their innate mental wellbeing.

Louise Aston, Wellbeing Director, Business in the Community:

Last year, Business in the Community’s (BITC) Mental Health at Work survey found 77% of employees have experienced symptoms of poor mental health in their lives and 62% attributed these symptoms to work or said it was a contributing factor, but just 11% of employees discussed a recent mental health problem with their line manager and 35% did not approach anyone for support. People are suffering in silence, unable to access timely support because they feel unable to disclose.

One of the biggest barriers to addressing this is the persistent stigma around discussing mental health at work; Mind has found that 95% of employees who call in sick due to stress have told their manager it’s something else. Yet one in four people and one in six workers experience mental health issues such as stress, anxiety and depression.

There are many myths surrounding mental health in the workplace. For example, there is a perception that disclosing a mental health problem at work shows weakness and signals the death of your career. Yet mental ill health affects employees at all levels of seniority, and people can recover their performance at work after a period of poor mental health or time off for a stress-related condition.

We all have mental health and physical health, and treating both on parity is part of being a responsible employer. Just because mental health is on a continuum, rather than being black and white in the same way as a broken limb, doesn’t mean it should remain invisible or be used as an excuse to write people off.

BITC is asking our member organisations to sign up to the Time To Talk employers’ pledge, demonstrating their commitment to changing how we think and act about mental health at work and support employees facing mental health issues, and encourages legal sector employers to do the same. We also have a new suite of toolkits, published in partnership with Public Health England, which support employers to take a ‘whole person, whole systems’ approach to mental health.

We are at a tipping point on mental health, thanks to awareness-raising initiatives such as Heads Together and the Prime Minister’s recent mental health legislation pledge. I am confident we are about to turn a corner, but we can only do so if business does not ignore this pressing issue. Only then will we end the injustice of people suffering in silence.

James Storke, Employment Partner at Lewis Silkin LLP:

As employees are working harder than ever, it is not surprising that that mental health issues are becoming increasingly common in the workplace. In fact, it is estimated that one on four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem in any given year. However, whilst mental health issues affect so many people, both employees and employers are often reluctant to fully acknowledge and engage with the subject.

For employees, there is a serious concern about the stigma attached to mental health conditions. Many employees fear they that if they told others about their mental health issues, they may be perceived as weak, unreliable or unpredictable. A reported prepared by Business In the Community (BITC) found that whilst stress is estimated to account for 43% of all working days lost to ill health, 95% of employees cited a reason other than stress for their absence due to the stigma associated with the condition. Sadly, it appears that the concern about stigma is well-founded as a survey by Unum found that 56% of respondents said that they would not hire someone with depression even if that person was the best candidate for the job.

Whilst the stigma issue makes employees reluctant to discuss their mental health, it is only part of the reason that there is a culture of silence regarding mental health in many workplaces. First, it appears there is still a disconnect on how employers and employees perceive their organisation’s attitude to mental health. In a BITC report, it found that 60% of board members and senior managers believe their organisations support people with mental health issues, but despite this, it found that only 11% of employees discussed a recent mental health problem with a line manager and half said that they would not do so.

Second, managers are often reluctant to discuss mental health issues with their employees. In many cases, this will because it is human nature to seek to avoid potentially difficult or sensitive topics. In other cases it will be due to fear of saying the wrong thing, making the situation worse or even getting the blame for causing the issue in the first place. Therefore, employers need to train their managers to both spot the early signs of mental health issues and to give them the confidence and skills to be able to have meaningful conversations with their staff about mental health.

Creating a culture of openness about mental health takes time and effort, but those employers who are willing to make that investment will reap the benefits have having a healthier, more engaged and more productive workforce with reduced sickness absence and staff turnover costs.

We would also love to hear more of Your Thoughts on this, so feel free to comment below and tell us what you think!

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