Mental health – not to be ignored

With the focus of this year’s World Mental Health Day (10th October) on workplace wellbeing, it’s certainly time to make employee mental health a priority. Thanks to your unique EA position, you’re perfectly placed to help make this happen, says Charlotte Buxton

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 half (51 per cent) 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 EAAs 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.

Many EAs find themselves acting as a confidante for colleagues. Executive PA Media advisory board member Lily North, EA at Halikos Group, said: “EAs hear people’s problems and issues probably more than others. People tend to open up to you more, which brings with it responsibility.”

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 and 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.

PAs wishing to speak up about their own mental health should consider how and when to have the conversation and source any supporting information to help. Mind offers a template Wellness Action Plan online – complete it in advance to think through your needs and consider what would help you stay well at work.

A state of flux

Businesses are constantly managing change and for those with mental health conditions, it’s particularly important that reassurance is provided.

David Brudö from Remente says: “Whenever a company is going through a change, whether expanding, opening new offices or even relocating, it’s important that all employees receive the necessary support – especially those who struggle with mental health, as change could be more difficult for them.”

EAs can help by sharing messages about where the company’s going and the impact it’ll have on employees, plus identifying people in need of support.

Putting it into practice

There are a range of initiatives available that you can suggest to the boss to support better mental health:

  • Mental Health First Aid (MHFA)MHFA is an international qualification in how to identify, understand and help someone with a mental health
 Courses range from half a day to two days. Consider whether you or a colleague (or a group, if you work for a big company) could be your organisation’s nominated mental health first aider(s).
  • Mental health days Taking a day for the purposes of supporting mental health can make a huge difference. EA Lily North says: “For EAs, burn out is a very serious issue. I took a mental health day this year because I needed to switch off – sometimes it all just gets a little too much! The important thing is that my boss completely understood and there was no negativity because I needed a day off.” So, champion mental health days by helping senior leaders understand the benefits – and suggest a policy to empower colleagues to take days off when they are needed.
  • Breathe easy
 Many organisations offer relaxation and meditation workshops to support wellbeing. It teaches people to manage their thoughts, maintain focus and cope with stress and anxiety through meditation. Could a taster session bene t your workforce?
  • Sing your heart out
 Marwell Wildlife has had a choir for five years and PA Helen says: “Singing is a great way to bring people together, create a sense of community and find moral support. We have a colleague who experienced crippling anxiety problems – they joined the choir and it’s had a huge impact on their confidence. No matter what kind of day you’re having, choir will make you feel better.” Could you use meeting rooms over lunch, and split the cost of an external musical director between attendees?
  • Wellbeing resources
 Marwell Wildlife also has an employee assistance programme; an online portal offering information about counselling, health and wellbeing. It’s had huge take-up and resulted in increased mental health awareness organisation- wide. So, if your company needs to get its facts straight, get together with other PAs, do your research and present senior leaders with solutions.
  • A ‘no stigma’ culture
 Creating an environment where people are encouraged
to speak openly about mental health helps better support employees. HR software company CharlieHR holds talks
led by team members or external speakers about their own experiences of depression or anxiety, as well as group therapy sessions where people can talk openly. Training for colleagues in the importance of mental health is a good place to start in creating this culture.
  • It helps to talk
 Organisations, such as marketing platform Memiah, offer free counselling to staff. Employees are given access to
a directory of counsellors and the counsellor can either invoice the company or the employee can be reimbursed.
So, if there’s appetite for this in your business, take the idea to your executives who can establish available budget and check out online directories to find support in your area.
  • Training
 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.