Let’s talk about workplace mental health…

20 March 2018

Just to get this bit out of the way. Have I mentioned that we have recently won a third award for our work in Mental Health? Have I mentioned also, that we have it on good authority that we are likely to receive another award shortly? This time with global recognition? No?  Well there you are.  Hurrah for us.  And even at the age of 51, I will still tell my mum.

And of course, we are rightfully proud: proud of the client for ignoring the internal advice to leave it be and ‘not open Pandora’s Box’; proud of us for achieving this recognition; etc etc.

We are indeed proper proud!

But of course, we at Steps are proud of all of our output. A bit like a plate of one of Gordon Ramsey’s dinners, if we aren’t scrutinising the quality of everything we do, if it is not our job to make sure that everything that goes out of Steps door is not of the highest standard, then we deserve whatever happens next.

But there is something about working around the subject of Mental Health that feels like a really good use of us. Those of you that know us well, know that we believe that lasting change is brought about through what we call Steps to Change: See It, Own It, Change It, Live It.

Our client has, if I’m honest, a fairly macho culture. Lots of very confident, blokey blokes. Lots of firm handshakes. Lots of ex uniform/services, often command and control etc. I’m generalising, and of course there are many exceptions to this, but I would wager that most of you wouldn’t guess that they are one of the first organisations I know of that are making a Mental Health/Wellbeing programme a firm-wide roll out. That’s thousands not hundreds of people. But I hope I’m wrong and I’m hoping that there are lots of other organisations that are doing the same.

When we are first in front of our delegate audience – in this case a conference size audience of approximately 100 – we start with See It. Using very careful researched case study, we hold up a mirror to the current culture so the delegate audience connect with what they see viscerally. They see themselves in that mirror and recognise the behaviour of others. Once you have that recognition, delegates are willing to Own It: to take personal responsibility for change. Then you talk about Change It: what are you actually going to do? Honestly, what can you commit to? Then of course, how can you be sure you Live It? How do you make sure you have a culture where it’s ok to have a conversation about mental health? So that it becomes ‘what we do round here’?

I have to say, in this programme, whilst we garner that recognition – recognition of a very difficult subject – the most powerful, moving part isn’t us. It’s the disclosures that come from delegates themselves. It’s when they, of their own volition stand up in front of everyone and say ‘this happened to me’, ‘it happened to me here’, ‘I’m back now, but there are many that aren’t’, ‘please don’t let this ever happen again’.

You might think I’m exaggerating when I say that more than several times it comes from really unexpected voices. Big, 6’ 5” blokes. And there’s not a dry eye to be seen.

But it doesn’t really matter who they are or their size and shape, or their gender. Mental illness doesn’t care. If you are reading this, then you are probably already tuned into some of the facts: that it affects 1 in 4 of us at some point in life for example. What matters is that most of us are not very good at spotting the signs and even worse at knowing what to do when we do see them.

And then everyone in that delegate audience is probably like me. They are probably starting to think about people at work they care about. Then they may look a little bit closer to home. Mates, family, friends. Are we missing something there too? What about my kids? How often do you read that another young person has self harmed or taken their own life? Only for those left behind to say, ‘we had no idea, we just didn’t see it coming. We’d only seen them recently and they seemed fine…’

Have I got a magic wand for you? Nope. Did we rid our client of mental health issues? Not even close. Is there a book you can read? Maybe.

What everyone does agree to at our client – because they want to – is to watch for the signs. Changes in behaviour, going early, coming late, changes in mood, performance; anything that’s ‘not like them’. And they agree that doing nothing is not an option. They agree to ‘have the conversation’ – even if it does go a bit wrong or feels awkward (and it probably will), it can’t possibly be worse than the consequences of doing nothing.

Things are changing. They are getting better. My father-in-law served in the Falklands, and he rarely talks about anything other than his friendships. But he was injured out, lost mates and saw others maimed first hand. There was no support offered back then. But there is now: there are all sorts of highly specialised, carefully trained support workers to help in any eventuality, in every walk of life. It’s part of the conversation in schools and colleges and it’s on the agenda at work.

But to get someone the help they need, you’ve first got to see the signs.

And despite the best efforts of some, it’s still paid lip service by many. The answer for some is still ‘to grow a pair’. Yep, somebody really did say that, at another client, very recently and of course, they are not the only voice like that. Probably, because they’ve managed to dodge bullets so far.

Our client, however, did open Pandora’s Box. Why? Because that one particular person experienced first-hand people he cared for being affected by mental health issues and he decided to act.

So, no clever, erudite learning here, crystallised into a pithy statement. But as parent, as a friend, as a boss, as a co-worker, I would encourage you to open the box, watch for the signs and have the conversation. Don’t wait for the wheels to come off. Don’t wait for someone else’s ‘worst’ to happen. Ask yourself how good are you in your workplace at talking about mental health? And if the answer is not very, then don’t wait for someone else to start the conversation.

You might not win an award but you might just make a massive difference.

Have I mentioned that we’ve won an award?…

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