Not everyone will trust HR. Instead you need ‘staff champions’

Does your workplace treat mental health as a box-ticking exercise?

With bigger employers, you should have access to Employee Assistance Programmes

Have you ever been too sick to go to work, but been too embarrassed to tell your manager what is happening? This is the reality for many of the one-in-four people who suffer from mental health issues in Ireland. While the last decade has seen huge improvements in the public discourse around mental health, there continues to be a great deal of stigma attached to admitting that you are not coping.

This stigma is possibly most severe in the workplace, where factors such as long working hours, high pressure and temporary contracts can contribute to the development of mental health issues. For others, factors outside of work may cause mental health issues, but a stressful working environment can make it even harder to cope with them.

Dealing with these issues in the workplace can be a challenging task, however, it has become easier in recent years.

Today, many workplaces have Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), where employees with mental health issues can access counselling and other supports. More workplaces are becoming engaged with the mental health of their employees, and are beginning to understand that having healthy staff benefits everybody in an organisation.


We found that people were less likely to seek help for mental health issues at work

This change is in part due to the See Change Workplace programme, which was launched in 2015. See Change, Ireland's National Mental Health Stigma Reduction Partnership, launched the programme to make working life easier for those suffering from mental health issues.

“When we started initially, we realised that there was a huge stigma around mental health,” says Dolores Kavanagh, co-ordinator of the programme.

“From doing our own research in 2010-2012, we found that stigma was most common in the workplace and people were less likely to seek help for mental health issues at work.”

See Change began doing workshops for line managers on mental health in the workplace in 2013, but they quickly found that employers were not taking it seriously.

“It was a tick box exercise,” says Kavanagh.

“They would get us in to do the workshops and the attitude was, ‘well that’s mental health covered’, and there wasn’t anything else done. The workplace programme is funded by the National Office for Suicide Prevention, so they had asked us to do something further for these organisations, so that’s when we developed the pledge programme.”

The six-step pledge programme includes two steps for management. Organisations that sign up to the pledge must provide training for line managers about mental health in the workplace. They must also develop a Mental Health Policy Document for the organisation. Later steps of the pledge require the organisation to engage all staff in mental health and wellbeing training, and nominate “staff champions” that employees can approach if they are struggling.

“[The programme] really gives organisations a structure,” Kavanagh explains. “A lot of them are lacking that. They often don’t know where to start when it comes to mental health, so this programme gives them structure in putting something in place in the organisation to challenge the stigma around mental health and to try to create a workplace that’s open to talking about mental health.

“The steps don’t have to be done in order, but we do like to see in the organisations that we have buy-in from senior management, because you need to lead by example.”

Employers would say 'can we call them wellness workshops', and we said, 'well no, it's mental health. We're not calling it wellness.'

Kavanagh says that See Change is inundated with requests from organisations hoping to do something around mental health, and says that employers are becoming much more engaged with the wellbeing of their employees.

“At the beginning, organisations liked to talk about ‘wellness’ a lot,” says Kavanagh. “When we were going in to do talks, they would say ‘can we call them wellness workshops, or else people won’t go’, and we said, ‘well no, it’s mental health, that’s what it is. We’re not calling it wellness.’ There is a change in that culture now as well, and a lot more managers are keen to talk about mental health in the workplace.”

Employees’ mental health

Thomas Larkin, a Dublin-based therapist who works with organisations, agrees with Kavanagh that there has been a change in recent years. He says that the importance of looking after employees’ mental health cannot be underestimated.

“If you ignore mental health in the workplace, it’s a lose-lose situation for organisations. But if you engage with it on a level, it can be a win-win,” he says.

“We have to accept the limits of what we can do,” Larkin explains. “We can ignore that reality within ourselves, and employers can ignore it. They want the job done, and they keep trying to push a pint into a half pint glass, and then there’s a break. It’s not just one cut, it’s the final cut of a thousand that sends people into a tailspin, and then people say, ‘well what’s wrong with him, I only asked for such and such?’”

“For me it does feel like corporations are responding, but in a way, they’re not informed themselves.

Yoga classes

“They do yoga classes, massages, and training days – and they’re good, but they’re kind of like a wave on an ocean: no matter how interesting, funny, and inspiring somebody is, it’s still a wave on an ocean. The wave comes, the wave goes, and nothing changes. What I do is I offer therapy in the workplace, and it’s about dealing with the current of the sea rather than the wave.

“Stress and anxiety means that you are overwhelmed. It means that you’re trying to fit the pint into the half-pint glass, but we can be full already. We’re so full of family stuff, of our own history, of everything, that when the half pint is already in the glass, you can’t fit more in.

There are so many reasons why a company should look after the mental wellbeing of an employee

“With therapy, we offer employees rolling sessions. We do about six sessions and then just roll through each employee and then back to the start. As people process what’s going on with them, it frees them up. It frees the space up, so there’s more space for themselves and there’s more space for work, so they are actually more productive.”

Peter Ledden, chief executive of Abate Counselling, says that the offering of counselling to employees who are experiencing mental health issues actually saves the organisation money in the long run.

“There is interesting literature on the marketplace that suggests that for every dollar spent on wellbeing in America the company saves $16 (€13.40). Simply by allowing the staff member access to a wellness programme, staff turnover and absenteeism are reduced. There are so many reasons why a company should look after the mental wellbeing of an employee. Other ways that they can do that might be to put in some health promotion days like work-life balance talks, stress talks, and time management talks. Lunchtime lectures on topics like that that can help. It also helps to have an open door in the HR department, but not everyone will trust that avenue.”

While organisations are undoubtedly becoming more engaged with their employees’ mental health, what can individuals who are experiencing difficulties do to alleviate the burden at work? Martin Rogan, chief executive of Mental Health Ireland, says that there are a number of steps you can take if you are experiencing mental health difficulties in the workplace.

“Talk to your line manager if you feel you can do that,” says Rogan. “Explain that you’re experiencing some difficulty. Thankfully in Ireland, we’re still quite relational in our workplaces. You’re not just a machine or a cog, and people are usually understanding and supportive of that and allow you some space or time. I think most employers will adapt to that if you’re proactive and explain that you’re having difficulty.

Employee assistance

“More and more, people are beginning to recognise that mental health issues are an ordinary part of the human condition. With bigger employers, you should have access to Employee Assistance Programmes, and these can involve access to a counsellor, or telephone based supports, or access to treatment options if you wish to do that. In most instances, people use the public health services, and those services have improved very radically in the last number of years.

“The vast majority of the services are community-based, and all community-based services are free of charge.”

Despite the leaps forward made in recent years, for some, confronting mental health issues in the workplace is still a huge challenge, and some cannot find the courage to approach a manager.

This is because, as Dolores Kavanagh points out, there is still a stigma attached to mental health issues.

“It is getting better but we have a long way to go. These things do take time. There are organisations we’ve been working with since the beginning, maybe five years ago, and they’re only starting to see a change now.

“A lot of companies are implementing wellness policies or having wellness weeks, but I’m not sure that it’s filtering through to everyone in the organisations. I think we have a way to go before that’s done, but it just involves everyone taking it on board.”

Kavanagh also says that after the many redundancies of the recession, there can be a lack of trust between employee and employer, which can make confronting mental health issues in the workplace even more challenging.

“If you’re working in an organisation that has had lay-offs in the last number of years, there is a fear in people. They might not want to say, ‘I have a mental health issue’, because they think they’ll be the first to go. If you talk about mental health problems people sometimes still see that as a weakness. People often have that misconception that it is a weakness and that people will look at you differently, so I think there is a fear of talking about it for those reasons.”

If your employer won't change, then you have to change

The reality is that not all employees will feel comfortable approaching their employer when they are experiencing mental health issues.

In that case, accessing private therapy or going through the public mental health system is the best course of action, says Thomas Larkin.

“If your employer won’t change, then you have to change,” says Larkin. “Some employers won’t change. It’s like banging your head against the wall. Sometimes you have to make changes yourself instead, but it can be difficult.

“What we do professionally is an expression of ourselves. If your work is a good expression of yourself, then you enjoy your work. When your work is not a good expression of yourself, then you don’t enjoy your work. With a bit of therapy, you can find what’s more in tune with yourself, and then move towards it,” he adds.

While things have changed in Ireland in recent years around mental health in the workplace, there is still a great deal of work to be done.

However, as more and more organisations sign up to the See Change pledge, there is a greater awareness than ever before of the challenges poor mental health can cause for employees, and the need on the part of organisations to help their workers become healthy and happy people.