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Developing Mental Health Awareness Training in the Wild



Having been “raised” a scientist, I am now privileged to fill the role of associate trainer and speaker with Illuminate. Despite the recent upswing in mental health awareness, the need has never been greater, but why?


The recent raising of the profile of mental illness has sadly done nothing to alter its prevalence and it remains extremely problematic in the workplace.  Nobody is immune, but between one in four and one in two of us will suffer from a mental health problem (MHP) each year, which translates to approximately one in six people in the work force.  For managers, the issue is especially thorny since MHP typically manifest themselves in three main ways; presenteeism, absenteeism and staff turnover, which together cost UK business almost £22 billion annually.  


MHP are the leading cause of sickness absence (12.7%), amounting to 24 days per year per individual. 



Acute (sudden onset, short duration) mental health issues in the workplace are often one result of chronic stress.  Left unaddressed, these issues can worsen and proliferate, and can lead to long-term, severe mental health problems.  This was certainly my own experience when I initially developed depression and anxiety symptoms in a toxic and stressful work environment.  Had someone noticed the problem and approached me supportively at an early stage, I might never have got as far as being diagnosed with depression, hospitalised and cursed with life-long illness.


The key to addressing workplace MHP is early detection and prompt, appropriate action by a suitable person, usually an acquaintance at first and eventually a line-manager, preferably given appropriate training.  Ultimately, it’s everyone’s responsibility to look out for one another. 


In “A Disease Like Any Other?” (2010), Bernice Pescosolido and colleagues found that 56% of employers admitted that they wouldn’t employ a person with depression even if they were the best candidate, while 47% of respondents said they would be unwilling to work with a depressed person and 30% thought someone with depression was potentially violent.  In 2012, leading stigma researcher Otto Wahl noted that even understanding that many psychiatric disorders had a genetic or physiological cause did little to dispel prejudice and even increased stigma since the sufferer was then seen as “defective”. Little wonder then that 95% of those calling in sick with stress give another reason, and 92% thought that disclosing an MHP would damage their career.  In fact, the report “Thriving at Work” estimated that 280,000 people with MHP leave the workforce every year.


In talking to HR professionals, we heard the questions: “How do you spot the early signs of MHP?” and “How do you broach the subject, how do you have ‘the talk’?” The concerns surrounding the latter question centred on issues of privacy and the risk of offending a person who might just be having a bad week but does not have an MHP per se or is afraid of disclosing a problem due to stigma.


In developing training to address these issues, there have been numerous challenges.  Firstly, on a personal note, the discomfort I experienced in telling my own story was deeply inhibiting, but a necessary part of the process since the training was to be rooted in “lived experience”.  Secondly, to add value to this story and address the questions above by offering practical advice on early detection of MHP, how to penetrate the “brave face” and how to start and continue a conversation with the employee involved.


The first challenge was overcome with much gritting of teeth but the second was less immediately tractable.  Much of what is suggested in the training presentation is based upon reflections on my own employment and health of the past thirty years. Mindful of the possibility of personal bias we sought the wisdom of others. The internet is replete with ideas on tackling the “problem” of MHP but distilling them and finding a cogent set of recommendations that aligned with personal experiences was tricky. In the end, we employed our instinctive choices to filter out the noise leaving only what we considered to be the valuable lessons.  The end-result has tested well with audiences and we consider the package to be a work-in-progress, subject to continuous refinement and improvement.


The simple take-home message is:


Notice one another, act promptly, be kind and not to be afraid to ask questions

The simple act of asking how somebody is doing can be the vital first step to helping and supporting them, and to nipping and MHP in the bud that would otherwise potentially lead to a life of misery and isolation.