Mental health –Not to be ignored

When stress becomes chronic, i.e. prolonged, it can make people more susceptible to developing a mental health problem like anxiety or depression

At least one in six workers experiences common mental health problems, including anxiety and depression, according to mental health charity Mind. Although hard-hitting campaigns have seen society make great strides in reducing stigma, there’s still much to be done when it comes to discussing the issue in the workplace. In fact, the World Health Organisation research found that, unless improvements are made, 12 billion working days will be lost globally to depression and anxiety every year until 2030 – a cost of billions worldwide.

Firstly, education about what mental health actually is and how it affects people is vital. The Institute of Leadership & Management found that 51% of employees with mental health issues said nothing changed when they reported it to their line manager. Worse still, eight per cent were sacked, forced out, demoted or subjected to disciplinary action. With more than two thirds of managers receiving no awareness training, it’s clear there’s a critical gap in organisations’ knowledge about employee mental health.

Mental health and the EA

As the eyes and ears of the boss, you’re well-placed to spot when colleagues are struggling. Your close connection to the top also presents a unique opportunity to influence leadership when it comes to putting support policies and programmes in place. But, in a high pressured role, it’s important you look after your own mental health too.

Causes and effects

When we talk about mental health, we’re talking about several different conditions. This includes anxiety disorders, depression, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, psychotic disorder and personality disorders. Some people will experience more than one condition at a time and they’ll appear differently from person to person.

These can be caused by a vast number of factors, such as a trauma, loneliness, a stressful and life-changing event, long-term stress, substance abuse and genetic factors, according to David Brudö, CEO and co-founder of mental wellbeing and personal development app, Remente.  He says: “While the cause may be difficult to determine, the effects of mental health conditions can vary, from mild to severe. For example, those suffering from illnesses such as depression or anxiety might find they become distracted, which, in turn, can affect their work performance. Similarly, they might lose interest in things that previously interested them, from career and hobbies, through to friends and relationships. This loss of interest could result in missed days from work, forgetfulness when it comes to deadlines and frequent mistakes.”

More than 600 million people worldwide suffer from depression or anxiety, according to the World Economic Forum. Priscilla Mgute, a qualified mental health nurse and lead facilitator at Clearfocus Training, says depression has a huge impact on people’s mood, which can make work challenging: “You have days where you’re very low and very tired. People end up stigmatising themselves as they want to be seen as functioning and productive but can’t because of their depression. This can really affect people’s confidence.”

And, although stress itself isn’t a mental health condition, too much of it can lead to significant problems. Considering PAs’ huge remits, it’s important to keep an eye on stress levels. Rebecca Fairbrother, founder of workplace wellbeing business Well Aware, says: “When stress becomes chronic, i.e. prolonged, it can make people more susceptible to developing a mental health problem like anxiety or depression.”

Let’s talk…

Dr Dimitrios Paschos, a consultant psychiatrist at Re:Cognition Health, says that communication is key:  “It needs to be tailored to the individual’s needs. When somebody comes forward with a mental health concern, there needs to be a discussion in an atmosphere of trust about what would help.”

Meanwhile, Keiron Sparrowhawk, a former neuroscientist and founder and CEO of MyCognition, recommends PAs use the five key domains of cognition (see our handy table for reference) as a basis for discussion with a colleague they’re worried about: “It’s much easier to say to somebody that you’ve noticed that they’re withdrawn or struggling to focus than to say you think they may have a mental health problem.”

Mental health charity, Mind, says there are a number of things you should do when discussing mental health with a colleague:

Go somewhere private

Avoid making assumptions about what they’re experiencing or why it’s happening

Respond flexibly, remembering that every person’s experiences and needs will be different

Be honest about any concerns, such as absence or performance

Be clear regarding what information the person wants to be passed on and to whom

Then create an action plan to help them manage their conditions at work, identify triggers and set out the support they need, for example flexible working or increased one-to-one time.

There are a wealth of organisations running training for companies to boost mental health awareness and help bosses identify how best to support employees – if you spot a knowledge gap, explore potential options and make recommendations to your executives.