Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Mental Health in the Workplace - #WorldMentalHealthDay.

fox mug autumn mental health

This year's topic for World Mental Health Day is 'Mental Health in the Workplace'. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw this, as I think it's an incredibly important but often neglected subject. It's also something that is very personal to me, as someone who has been unable to juggle both work and my mental health for a long time. Is it time that businesses did more to help their employees with mental health concerns?

Because I'm completely obsessed with talking about myself, of course, I'm going to tell you about my own experiences with mental health and work. Just humour me, okay?

The first place I can remember really struggling was at the club I worked in when I was a student. I was already going through a fairly hard time while at university (you can read a quick overview of it all here if you're interested) and work was not helping. 

Working in a club is much harder than it looks (particularly the only free-entry club in a city). The hours suck, so combined with uni I barely slept. Every weekend was spent serving some highly unpleasant people and I was subject to so much abuse from drunk people that I vividly remember running from the bar in tears numerous times. As much as I knew that my coworkers would always have my back, I also knew that management and the club's owner wouldn't - all that mattered was the money.

In another job, I watched as a friend of mine crumbled to the floor in the kitchen, sobbing over the break-up of his relationship. He'd been forced to work - despite it being his day off - as we were perpetually understaffed. I hadn't a clue what to do, except to phone our manager, who cursed and shouted and came back to work in a huff to 'help' him. He still wasn't allowed to leave though, he was 'chef' first and 'human' second.

In that same job I was not only forced to work the day my aunt died (the only consolation was that I was only expected to bar-tend instead of waitress that night - presumably the tears I couldn't control were less likely to put people off their drinks than their dinner) but a week later I was expected to cover the shifts of a colleague who'd also suffered a bereavement. I was overworked both in terms of the number of hours I was working, and the amount of work I was expected to do while there. 

I think this is the sad truth of working in a minimum wage job, especially one that isn't part of a huge chain. Where do you turn when you're struggling? But it isn't just independent companies that have issues: I worked for a well-known company that has hundreds of employees and where I found myself feeling bullied by management staff (you can read about it here). However, this company doesn't have an HR department, so the only option I had was to discuss it... with the people I felt were bullying me. My anxiety was through the roof in that job - I had full-blown panic attacks on the shop floor but I couldn't bring myself to tell a soul.

Dreading going into work is an awful feeling. It starts to impact on everything - even when you are home in the evening you are constantly worrying about your next shift. I haven't worked in a long time because I cannot take it; every single place I've worked in has put my mental health on the line and put me in a really awful position. For a long time, I've blamed myself for this, and to an extent I know there's a lot I could do to make this better. But when I opened this up and asked about this on Twitter, I was quite surprised by the results.

51%  of respondents to a poll I ran said that their work negatively affected their mental health. Obviously, this is far from a scientific study, and I had a very small number of responses, but if over half of people are being negatively affected by their work, isn't it shocking that 52% of people also indicated that where they work has no policy on mental health?!

How we feel is hugely influential on the quality of work we produce, but this seems to only be acknowledged by companies when it is in regards to physical health. 97% of the people who responded to my polls said that mental health matters in regards to work, but 64% also said they felt physical health was treated as more important.

I just can't get my head around the thinking of those in charge: surely it's a no-brainer that happy, healthy workers produce the best work? When I was having panic attacks on a shop floor, or watching my friend cry instead of cook, do you think we were working to our highest abilities? Feeling like you are stuck in a completely hopeless situation in a place that you have to go to multiple times a week is so detrimental that it lead me to stop working altogether. I really believe things could have been entirely different if I'd had my mental health taken seriously by my employers.

62% of my poll respondents said they believe they could be more effective at their job if there were better mental health policies in place. 70% also said they don't believe they get enough support at work. When I first considered this, I have to admit I'd believed that all the responsibility for dealing with my mental health at work fell on me. In my experience, there's a strange culture of "don't bring your problems to work", which is fairly difficult when work is your problem. So instead I 'took my problems home', finding myself crying while trying to get ready for work, unable to sleep as I felt so anxious about going back, or even self-harming because I felt completely alone, unsupported and powerless to change anything.

When I struggled with my mental health at university I was supported by both academic staff and medical practitioners - support that ensured my illnesses did not become more severe, and that I was able to achieve everything I was capable of. In my working life, I have seen numerous practices altered to support and protect the health of those with previous injuries or chronic illnesses, which is obviously how it should be. If this is possible for physical injuries and illnesses, there's absolutely no reason why similar amendments can't be made to protect the mental health of employees. Asking for, and receiving, support should not be something we look down on. The impact that a little bit of support could have for an individual is honestly life-changing. It could also save companies a huge amount: according to ACAS, mental health-related absence, loss of production and turnover of staff costs the UK £30 billion a year!

There's a huge lack of education around mental health and a lot of stigma that goes with it. 81% of my poll respondents said they'd used an excuse based on physical health to explain an absence from work when in reality the reason was mental health. Further, 55% said they wouldn't discuss their mental illness with their work, and 64% couldn't be sure that doing so wouldn't result in a backlash. The conversations we have with our work superiors need to change. I know full well that in at least one job I was considered to 'moan' a lot because I'd speak up about how stressed I felt. In response, I was given the worst tasks to complete and was scheduled onto the worst shifts. I felt like I was being reminded that how I felt didn't matter - do the job and shut up. Wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to openly discuss how we felt at, and about, our work, without fear of reprisals? To be able to say 'I need help' and actually receive it?

However, it's not all doom and gloom. 24% of people said their company had a good mental health policy, 33% said that physical and mental health were treated as equally important, and 32% said that work actually had a positive effect on their mental health. I also had a couple of people tweet me to discuss some of their experiences at work, and they sounded glorious. I'm hopeful that they won't be in the minority for much longer, and that soon this will just be the norm:

My experiences at work actually made my mental health issues worse. I know that if I'd felt more supported at work, I'd not only still be there, making a company money, but it would have had a huge effect on my personal life too. There's a lot to improve on and companies need to be doing a lot more.

However, I am hopeful that efforts like this choice of topic for World Mental Health Day will encourage employers to play a much bigger role in identifying and supporting their employees who are struggling. Workplace awareness of mental health and efforts to improve employee experiences at work will increase productivity and seriously improve lives - it's a win-win.

So guys, have you any experience with mentally healthy or unhealthy workplaces? What could businesses do to improve their employees' experiences? What qualities do you think a mentally healthy workplace has? I'd love to know your thoughts! 

Find out more about World Mental Health Day at the Mental Health Foundation website. 
There are lots of resources, such as this from Time to Change if you feel you need some support at work. 
If you need to talk to someone, please contact the Samaritans.


  1. Beth, this is SUCH a fantastic post and so so fitting for today! Minimum wage workers always get such a rough deal, I can totally relate from my waitressing days! Due to the hotel I waitressed at being perpetually understaffed (just like the place you worked!), I was working 6 full days a week at one point and it really got to me - I couldn't sleep, felt on edge all the time, and very very anxious. One week, on the one day I had off, one of the hotel managers rang me, screaming down the phone, demanding to know why I wasn't at work - I pointed out that it was the one day I had off this week! Turns out, she'd read the rota wrong and had thought I was rosta'd on when I wasn't! This reduced me to tears, it probably doesn't seem that much but with the state of my mental health at that time, it just tipped me over the edge. Mental health has such a big impact on work and vice versa , and I am certainly in the camp of people saying that physical health is treated as more important. One night when I really needed some time off due to my MH, my Mum rang in to work for me saying I had a sickness bug instead, which my work totally accepted, but I have a feeling that had I explained the real reason, I wouldn't have been able to have that night off! Thank you so much for raising such important issues on your blog with such clarity, personality and class, you've done an amazing job with this post, it's a great talking point!

    Abbey 💗 http://www.abbeylouisarose.co.uk

  2. Beth, this is a brilliant post. It's actually got me thinking, and I'm going to check, but I don't think we have a policy on mental health (a large Oil company!), so thanks for that. I also wanted to mention some experiences I've had in the same workplace. I know quite a few people who have had to have time off for stress over the years, and the backlash, derogatory comments and general bitchy nature was and still is appalling. It's seen as an eye roll moment, that your just being pathetic and using stress as an excuse for some free time off and not having to use your holiday entitlement.

    I myself have worked for the same company 10 years now, and I can't count the number of times I've locked myself away in the toilet, sat on the floor and rocked back and forth. The times I've driven the hour home and cried the whole way. The times I've thought of hurting myself so I didn't have to go in the next day, wanting to wake up with some sort of infection so I didn't have to go in. But while they know my physical health problems, they haven't acknowledged my anxiety or depression. I've mentioned it quite a few times and all I get is pitty looks and asked half-heartedly if I want to see the company doctor.

    I'm glad I now work from home, my physical health problems means my mental health has improved all because I don't have to be in the office. Sad but true!

  3. So many bad ones in the past, but now I'm in a great workplace.
    Cora ❤ http://www.teapartyprincess.co.uk/

  4. this is an amazing post Beth and it really shows just how mental health impacts our work as well as our lives, sometimes work is the cause of mental health and you've really done an amazing job explaining just how it can affect people in so many ways, I hope that one day you can find somewhere you feel comfortable and safe in for a working environment if you choose to go back to work. this post was amazing to read and you've done an amazing job writing it xo

  5. So interesting to read about your experience, though I'm sorry you've had some bad ones! One of the worst companies I've worked for is a household name. Often, employers will have an outward caring appearance, whilst actually doing very little to change the stressful/problematic environments in which their employees are working.
    I don't know what the solution is, but it has to come from people with experience of mental ill-health, to make sure that any policies formed have people at the centre rather than profit or productivity.

  6. This post is such an eye-opener. I'm so shocked that over 80% of your poll respondents would claim a physical reason for a work absence instead of their mental health. That's such a damning indictment of workplaces in the UK today. But I don't know why it has to be this way. There's so much more information out there about mental health now, with so many celebrities coming forward and talking about their experiences. Prince Harry for one, has done a huge amount to contribute to this. I agree with you 100%, it's high time that all employers, large or small, put proper mental health policies in place to support their people, as you say, it's a win-win. Thank you for such a brilliantly written post. X

    Lisa | www.lisasnotebook.com


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