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Championing mental health in the workplace

A stigma still exists around mental health in the workplace, something progressive companies are working hard to change

Ireland has one of the highest rates of mental-health illness in Europe, with estimates that one in four of us will experience some mental-health problems during our lifetime.

Despite growing awareness, mental illness remains a taboo topic, particularly in the workplace. Efforts are ongoing to alleviate this stigma and prevent discrimination due to mental-health issues, but are they going far enough?

Dr Gavin Breslin is a senior lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at the School of Sport, Ulster University, who has carried out extensive research into mental health and wellbeing interventions. He says mental health is still “the poor relation” to physical health; this is evident from the relatively poor resourcing the area receives, an issue he says must be addressed by Government.

“Mental-health issues are not visible, and they are not given the same support as those with physical health problems,” Breslin says.


He says an employment culture persists where there is still significant stigma and discrimination attached to mental health and mental illness.

“People are afraid to come out and say anything about their mental health,” he says. “They are often afraid to be perceived as weak. When it comes to employment, they are afraid to come forward as they worry they will be seen as troublesome, and ‘rocking the boat’, when they should be getting on with their jobs.”

Breslin admits awareness has increased thanks to large public health campaigns but cautions, “we are still not there yet – there is more awareness but not enough intervention”. Companies wanting to prove they are supportive of employees experiencing mental-health issues need to show they have an “action plan”, he adds.

“Any employee review needs to take a holistic approach and not just use performance indicators – organisations need to start showing they are interested in the employee as a person.”

Worsening picture

Recent research in the UK shows a worsening picture in the workplace, with nearly two-thirds of people having experienced a mental-health issue due to work and one in three formally diagnosed with a mental-health condition. Aisling Kelly, senior healthcare consultant at Mercer Ireland, says issues such as financial uncertainty and workplace stress can cause negative mental-health symptoms like loss of sleep, lack of concentration and fatigue.

“Employers are increasingly aware of the impact these stresses can have on employees’ mental health,” she says.

While employees experiencing mental-health difficulties are protected from discrimination at work under the equality Acts, Kelly agrees with Breslin that stigma remains an issue in many organisations.

“Employers are increasingly aware of their responsibilities in this area and so many are putting supports in place for individuals and encouraging discussions to break down stigma,” she says.

This can range from having an employee assistance programme (typically an advice/counselling hotline) to holding specific wellbeing events targeting mental health. Many organisations that are actively trying to break down these barriers have developed mental-health champions within the business and regularly provide access to programmes such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or mindfulness, adds Kelly.

Shane Mohan is one of those mental-health champions. A consulting partner at Deloitte, he says one of the key things businesses can do is to open up the conversation around mental health in order to reduce the silence and stigma surrounding it.

“At Deloitte, we were one of the first signatories of the See Change green ribbon campaign and pledge to end the stigma around mental illness in workplaces. We have trained a number of mental-health champions with people from across the business attending a two-day mental health first aid training to be able to act as a first point of contact for anyone struggling with their own mental health or seeking advice on how to support a colleague,” he explains.

Deloitte has a dedicated employee assistance programme available to its employees and the company also arranged for a monthly drop-in clinic with a psychologist onsite at its offices. The month of May is specifically dedicated to mental-health awareness, with a variety of speaker events and connectivity initiatives.

“We also encourage regular check-ins between managers and their teams to ensure that people have a regular touchpoint with their managers so that any issues can be picked up more quickly. The better managers know their people individually, the easier it will be for them to recognise symptoms of ill health and also to open up a conversation about potential supports,” says Mohan.

Stigma still persists

Despite a growing openness and understanding around mental health in society, stigma still persists in the workplace, admits Kate Dodd, diversity and inclusion consultant at law firm Pinsent Masons.

“There is no doubt that this stigma remains and any workforce who is being honest with themselves has to tackle stigma. It would be great if we said stigma doesn’t exist but that’s simply not true,” she says.

Dodd says Pinsent Masons has been working to spread the message about the universal nature of mental-health problems – no one is immune.

“We try to make it very clear that everyone has mental health, the same way we all have physical health. A key message is that we are all on a spectrum, we all move between feeling extremely mentally healthy and other times when we are extremely stressed.”

Exemplifying this approach, when the firm developed its mental health strategy three years ago, the managing partner was appointed as the sponsor.

“Our very deliberate strategy was to have the most senior lawyer in our firm involved in this, to make it very clear to all of our people that we want to talk about this and we want to listen, and we want to tackle it as a business and it is absolutely no barrier to progression within our firm. Every message comes directly from him. We had to make people sure that it was okay to say they are struggling with their mental health, that it wouldn’t affect them getting on in the business,” Dodd says.

John Sisk & Son is another company that has been making a concerted effort to bring mental health to the fore in the workplace. “As a construction company, it’s a predominantly male environment,” says Sean Fitzpatrick, human resources director at the company. “We are trying to make it okay to talk about mental health.”

The company carries out a series of roadshows every year, and top of the agenda in 2018 was mental health.

“The CEO, myself and an external speaker were saying if you are feeling a little bit under pressure, it’s okay to put your hand up. This helps bring it out into the open,” Fitzpatrick says, adding that Sisk has also sponsored the Mental Health and Wellbeing Summit for the past three years.

Fitzpatrick explains that Sisk sought out experts in mental health in order to get their messaging right – for example, they worked with rugby pundit and mental-health advocate Brent Pope and Prof Jim Lucey of St Patrick’s Mental Health Services. “We have been engaging with experts in this space in order to develop an overall approach, as we want to engage the whole workforce on this,” he says.

“It’s natural for people to be reluctant to say they have a mental-health issue, but the message is that it’s okay not to feel okay and that it’s absolutely okay to ask for help.”

Danielle Barron

Danielle Barron is a contributor to The Irish Times