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Mental health and the workplace: ‘I was told to cheer up and not be so negative’

Many people suffering with mental-health issues are afraid to open up to their boss, and those who do are often met with a lack of understanding

Employees who suffer with poor mental health are often afraid to tell their colleagues or boss. Photograph: iStock

Are we at tipping point when it comes to our mental health and well-being? With three in 10 of us experiencing mental-health issues, we are at a time when being given the opportunity to openly discuss our mental health is a prerogative.

But are we offered that opportunity?

Are we being heard?

Do we feel comfortable enough opening this conversation, especially in the workplace?

A Mental Health Foundation survey uncovered worrying statistics about how the work environment is affecting our mental health. One third of us are unhappy about how much time we spend in work. Forty per cent are neglecting other aspects of our lives, which has a negative effect on our mental health. Working long hours is making us feel depressed, anxious and irritable. Almost two thirds have experienced a negative effect on our personal life, including poor relationships and poor home life.

The pressure of our demanding work culture is creating limits on our personal lives as work takes over. The workload is heavy, the hours are long, the pressure is enormous. These limits are ultimately putting up barriers that are affecting or hindering our mental health. It is the one place where we need the support and assistance when suffering with poor mental health. Many employees, however, are still fearful of opening up in the work environment, especially to their boss.

Adam has worked in IT for more than 15 years. “For as long as I have had a job, I’ve suffered with my mental health,” he says. “Between depression, negative thoughts and anxiety, I’ve had it all. To look at me though, you’d never know. I never told a single colleague and I especially never mentioned it to any boss over the years. I suffered in silence, hiding as much as I possibly could. On bad days, I would blame a migraine, anything, to stop people asking questions. I was afraid to tell anyone.”

Adam’s story, unfortunately, is not unique. His reluctance to be open and honest with his boss and colleagues is almost too common, with so many feeling overwhelmed and worried about what would happen if they discussed their mental health. Adam says: “I always thought they’d never understand. That colleagues would judge me. I was nervous of being looked at differently and worried I’d lose friends or worse, my job.”

Overwhelming pressure

While at work, Adam admits to having felt an overwhelming pressure to be the best he could be, which, for him, meant not disclosing his mental-health problems. His fear that colleagues and his boss would ostracise him meant he kept silent. But as with most things, there comes that tipping point.

“It all changed when a desperately bad anxiety attack made me attempt to take my own life,” Adam recalls. “I wanted it all to be over but instead it made me realise that I needed more help than I was getting. It was easier than I thought to talk to my boss but it took far too much for me to finally get to the point of feeling I could open up. I almost wasn’t here to tell anyone about my depression. My boss was more understanding than I imagined and she’s supported me a lot.”

Emma, on the other hand, who worked in the hospitality industry, was met with a lack of empathy from her employer which saw her retreat further – making her depression worse.

“I was told to cheer up and not be so negative. My boss had no understanding whatsoever of what I was going through and didn’t know how to help me. I imagine he was embarrassed considering I ended up in tears in his office. I have never felt so neglected, isolated and worthless in my life compared to that day and that’s saying a lot. In the end, I couldn’t handle working there and quit. I was unemployed, fragile and suffering depression and anxiety with suicidal thoughts. If it wasn’t for my therapist, I’m not sure where I would be.”

Aisling Leonard-Curtin, chartered psychologist, co-director of ACT Now Purposeful Living and author of The Power of Small says the reality is that most managers and business owners have little or no training in mental health.

“As a result,” she says, “often those in leadership positions are uncomfortable and unskilled in terms of how they respond to strong, intense, unwanted emotions. Leaders may respond in a way that minimises the employee’s distress or in a way that comes across as patronising. Either of these approaches can be harmful for the employee.

“Those in leadership positions could greatly benefit from undergoing training in acceptance and commitment training (ACT). This approach has been shown, through research, to help leaders to respond to employees in more compassionate and flexible ways. As a result, absenteeism, burnout and staff turnover all decrease whilst psychological well-being, physical health, job satisfaction and productivity all improve.”

Psychological approaches

Ashling Leonard Curtin.

Promoting positive mental health in the workplace often focuses on issues such as stress management and skills training, which more often than not gives emphasis to the work environment. For those of us with mental-health issues, this is not entirely helpful. Leonard-Curtin says employers can give their employees the confidence to speak up about their mental well-being with training in psychological approaches such as ACT.

“However,” she says, “there are a number of small, yet effective, ways that businesses can help support those with mental health [issues] to speak up about their own struggles and challenges.

“Be mindful of how you speak about mental health in the workplace. What you say, and don’t say, has an impact on those who struggle with mental-health difficulties.

“Be mindful of how you respond to strong, unwanted emotions. As best you can, avoid the seductive traps of minimising or patronising. Have training days around self-care and mental health and then integrate what is learned on an ongoing basis. Otherwise, such trainings can be perceived as tokenistic.”

It’s not always possible to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, especially if you have not experienced mental-health issues personally. For those suffering with mental-health issues, it’s important they feel accepted, respected and understood. Fostering a culture of trust and support will go a long way to break the silence.