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Five employee mental health myths busted

Advice and top tips

Five employee mental health myths busted

Much has been done in recent years to challenge perceptions and advance the cause of mental health in the workplace.

Despite these efforts, in many workplaces mental illness is still regarded as a taboo subject. According to mental health charity MIND, “many people still feel scared and confused about confronting the issue at work”.

Indeed, Willis Towers Watson research1 found that one fifth (20%) of employees harbour scepticism towards people who take time off due to mental health issues.  Furthermore, one in five (19%) do not believe stress is a genuine mental health condition.

Such attitudes can lead to cultures of fear and silence. In turn, this can encourage incidents of presenteeism and make it more difficult for line managers to identify sufferers, to provide effective treatment and to make the return to work smoother and less daunting for employees.

Here we outline five key mental health myths that should be busted as part of the drive to establish more open, empathetic workplace environments.

1 Mental ill-health is a sign of weakness.

Mental illnesses, from depression and anxiety to PTSD and bipolar disorder, are diagnosed medical conditions – they are not signs of character or personality weaknesses.

While they may not be as visible as physical health conditions, they are no different to developing a bad back or having high blood pressure in that they can happen to anyone, at any time. Consequently, recovery is not simply a matter of will or self-discipline.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), one in four people will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives, putting them among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide.

In a similar vein, seeking help for mental health issues should not be regarded as a sign of weakness – but rather a sign of strength and courage.

While women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with common mental health problems, research suggests men may be less likely to seek help.

According to the Willis Towers Watson Health and Benefits Barometer (2017), of those employees who had suffered stress or mental health issues, only 39 per cent of men had talked to their manager, compared with 47 per cent of women. In some quarters, men can feel burdened by a pressure to conform to outdated ‘macho’ stereotypes and a misguided compulsion to ‘man-up’.

Company managers and co-workers can help to reduce the stigmas associated with mental ill-health by fostering an empathetic and supportive workplace environment.

2 Mental health sufferers cannot do their job effectively

Symptoms of mental health conditions will manifest themselves differently, depending upon the individual and the nature of the illness.

Although mental illnesses may have a negative impact on an employee’s ability to function at work, it may have no effect at all.

It is possible for some people to live with a mental health condition and to live their day-to-day lives as normal – with good work attendance records and high productivity levels. These high-functioning individuals may be struggling on the inside, but their condition is almost undetectable to those living around them.

Some may resort to unhealth coping mechanisms, excessive working patterns for example, that mask conditions such as anxiety, stress or depression. This, however, does not invalidate their struggle and attempting to ‘put out the fire by throwing ever more petrol on it’ can lead to longer-term problems.

Education, guidance and awareness training for line managers can help them to spot the warning signs of mental health problems among staff and to offers support before they escalate.

 3 It’s strange and unhelpful to talk about your mental health

Fears of judgement or discrimination can discourage some from talking about their mental health concerns. For others there can be a misconception that it’s a weird thing to do, or that it will only make matters worse.

Although it can be hard to open up about our feelings, particularly at work, talking can be a big part in taking charge of our mental wellbeing and getting the help we need.

Bottling up our thoughts and feelings can be overwhelming; it can make us feel alone and exacerbate conditions such as depression.

The Mental Health Foundation point out that “talking can be a way to cope with a problem you’ve been carrying around in your head for a while. Just being listened to can help you feel supported”.

Sufferers of mental health conditions, however, need to feel comfortable opening up within a circle of trust. In the workplace, this might mean providing access to confidential and expert support, such as employee assistance programmes (EAPs) or specialist counselling services.

4 Mental health sufferers are violent and dangerous

Back in the fifth century BC, Greek philosopher Socrates is believed to have attributed a low rate of crime in Athens with a low rate of mental illness. This myth – and stigma – has been perpetuated ever since.

Indeed, the modern media has been guilty of regularly portraying people with mental illness as violent. In truth, this is rarely the case.

Official statistics consistently show that most violent crimes and homicides are committed by people who do not have mental health problems.

While research has shown there is an increased risk of violence in those living with schizophrenia and anti-social personality disorder (ASPD), in general, mental health sufferers are more at risk of being attacked or harming themselves.

5 Creative employees are more likely to suffer mental health issues

The assertion that there is a link between creativity and mental illness is far from conclusive.

It is true that some studies have found a link. Research from the Swedish Karolinska Institute, for example, suggested writers had a higher risk of anxiety and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse. Findings from the Office of National Statistics, meanwhile, found that people who work in arts-related jobs were up to four times more likely to commit suicide.

However, several other studies have found that there’s the same proportion of mental illness in creative people as in the general population.

Indeed, many psychologists are sceptical of any link. Some believe that it’s the pressures and stresses associated with creative working environments that trigger mental ill-health, while others suggest that more emotionally volatile people may be drawn to creative industries.