Escaping the stigma: mental health in the workplace

Geoff McDonald, formerly of Unilever, had his own struggle and wants to break the taboo

"In 2008, I was 20 years into a career with Unilever. Then all of a sudden, at midnight on January 25th, 2008, I had a panic attack. It was the start of a three-month battle with depression and anxiety. The following day, when I was diagnosed with depression, I made a decision that saved my life: not to be burdened by the stigma.

“Sure I was scared, but the response from others when I shared my illness was amazing. I had feared that people would see me as weak, but instead they told me I was courageous.”

These are the words of Geoff McDonald, former global vice-president for human resources at Unilever, whose mission is to bring mental health out of the closet. McDonald is passionate about breaking down the taboos not least because he lost a close friend to suicide.

As far as McDonald is concerned, it was fear of stigma and societal repercussions that killed his friend, who felt compelled to hide his illness. Through his movement, Minds At Work, McDonald is encouraging managers of big and small companies alike to put their weight behind mental health awareness and initiatives within their organisations.


Box-ticking exercise

McDonald says CEO and senior management support is critical. Otherwise it can end up as a box-ticking exercise.

There is nothing “soft” about tackling mental health in the workplace. In fact there is a strong business case for doing so. Productivity lost to mental illness costs money.

Research from the UK mental health charity Mind estimates that 70 million sick days taken in Britain every year are due to mental health issues. No comparable figures are available for Ireland. However, the Irish depression support charity, Aware, says one in four Irish people will suffer an episode of mental illness at some point in their lives, so the potential working hours lost are not inconsequential.

According to Mind, work is the biggest cause of stress, more so than debt or other financial problems. Excessive stress impedes the ability to function effectively and is one of the main triggers for depression, anxiety and panic attacks.


Despite this, most employees are afraid to admit they’re not well – possibly with good reason. Mind’s research shows that one in five people in the UK that admitted to having a mental health problem ended up losing their job.

The World Health Organisation estimates that 350 million people globally suffer from mental illness, with depression top of the list. But it also stresses that there are effective ways of preventing mental illness and treatments to alleviate the suffering it causes.

"Stigma around mental health issues is still a big problem in society at large and this tends to make people reluctant to talk about it or seek treatment. But there is a lot of help available from organisations such as ourselves if people just ask," says Dominic Layden, chief executive of Aware.

“We deliver mental wellness programmes to industry and did a survey two years ago around wellness at work. Some 84 per cent of participating companies had no wellness policy even though the majority of them (77 per cent) acknowledge that dealing with stress and mental health at work are priorities.

Wellness programmes

“The larger FDI [foreign direct investment] companies tend to have some form of wellness programmes but within the SME sector there’s very little.

Also, while managers might recognise that someone is in trouble, they don’t have the skills to identify and deal with the issues. Well-meaning managers may offer people “a few days off” but in some cases that’s the worst thing to do, as people really need the structure of the working day. Without it they may go even further into themselves

“People think depression, in particular, is entirely mood-related but it is far more wide-reaching, with impacts on cognition and concentration. There is still a massive job to be done around mental health education.”

David Price is a wellness expert and managing director of Health Assured in the UK. He says early indicators of mental distress include regular short absences from work, poor productivity, signs of lethargy and tiredness, irritability, inability to make decisions and emotional outbursts.

“If it is perceived that employers are not taking stock of employee mental health or approach it in a negative light, then employees will not feel comfortable in coming forward with any issues they are facing,” he says.

“Creating an open culture that highlights the importance of mental health and supports employees who are experiencing wellbeing issues is imperative, not only for the individual but for the workplace as a whole. Management should be fully equipped, trained and confident in dealing with matters of mental health, helping employees identify the triggers at work and developing a plan of action to help them deal with them.”

High-profile people

One of the more positive developments around mental health is the increase in high-profile people, such as RTÉ's John Murray and Tony Blair's former adviser Alastair Campbell "coming out" about their illness. However, when it comes to the workplace, there's still a long way to go.

Companies may have become more aware of employees’ physical health and provide on-site gyms or healthy options in the canteen but few offer activities to support mental hygiene such as meditation, counselling and CBT.

Geoff McDonald believes that those at the top hold the power to effect real change. “It would be great if we had corporate leaders admitting their own frailties and thereby sending the message that it is okay to have a mental health issue,” he says.