How organisations can support positive mental health

6 minutes
Diane Duberry

By Diane Duberry

As it is mental health awareness week, I thought I would share my lived experience of mental health issues and my tips on how organisations can support staff suffering from poor mental health.

I always thought mental health issues were reserved for others. I was fit, happy, independent, and resilient. Given my lifestyle, there was not a chance I would ever suffer from poor mental health. How wrong I could be.

Nearly 20 years ago, whilst living overseas, I was a victim of false imprisonment and a sustained attack that lasted over 8 hours. I have no doubt that, had I not managed to escape, I would not have survived the day. I still look back as if that day were a scene out of a film and can’t believe this happened to me.

Battered and bruised, with no passport, I managed to return to the UK. Typical me, I thought it best to put everything behind me and just carry on. I got a new job, a new flat, and continued like everything was just fine, or so I kept telling myself. Until 10 months later, I woke up, heart pounding, with an intense feeling of doom that wouldn’t stop. Having never had a panic attack before, I honestly thought there was a problem with my heart, so off I went to the hospital. A day of tests, scans, and brilliant care resulted in the diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Until then, it never crossed my mind that what I was experiencing was mental rather than physical.

Symptoms of PTSD vary, for me the worst symptoms were crippling panic attacks that would be on and off all day, hallucinations, night terrors, hypervigilance, and flashbacks. My recovery took over a year; I attended therapy sessions, was kinder to myself, and slowed down. I wasn’t 100% at the end of this, but I could get through larger blocks of time without symptoms and could cope better when symptoms arose.

Throughout all of this, I carried on. I went to work as usual, exhausted through lack of sleep, trying my best to hide crippling panic attacks, my hypervigilance in overdrive. I was feeling super vulnerable, scared, and alone.

The funny thing is, looking back, I have no doubt that, had I spoken with my employer and colleagues, they would have been supportive and helped me through those dark times.

However, how was I to know? Mental health was not something discussed in the workplace. We had no policies or guidance as to what to do or who to speak with if we did have an issue.

Without staff knowing it is safe to speak about mental health issues in the workplace, they won’t. They will suffer in silence, may not perform to the best of their ability, and potentially leave.

It is estimated that 1 in 4 people in England suffer from some form of mental health issue each year. By providing an emotionally safe, inclusive workplace, all staff can thrive and flourish, and recruitment and retention rates will improve.

So, here are my tips for organisations to support mental health at work:

  1. Ensure your mental health policy is overt and evidenced for internal staff and potential employees
  2. Emphasize an employee experiencing an inclusive and open interview, onboarding and induction process, which will go far in terms of facilitating and encouraging someone to speak out rather than suffer in silence
  3. Reassure staff that they can talk about issues without judgment or fear of reprisal; having Senior leader advocates of well-being is also very powerful
  4. Provide training and shared learning sessions for colleagues to learn about different types of mental health issues and how they can affect people
  5. Provide training for all managers on how to support team members suffering from mental health issues
  6. Encourage managers and mental health champions to check in with staff on a regular basis
  7. Consider investing in having Mental Health First Aiders within the workplace who will be able to listen, understand and respond to someone experiencing a mental health issue
  8. Encourage staff to discuss mental health issues openly, especially managers and senior leaders
  9. Provide a safe space (groups/forums/workshops) where staff can openly discuss and listen to lived experience of mental health issues
  10. If you have an Employee Assistance Programme in place, reassure staff that this is confidential and managers/senior leaders will not be aware of who is accessing the services
  11. Be conscious that everyone’s needs are different, talk to staff, establish requirements, and offer reasonable adjustments required so staff can thrive at work – this may be flexibility to attend therapy sessions during work hours or providing a quiet space to deal with difficult symptoms and emotions
  12. Encourage physical exercise across the organisation – replace meetings with walking meetings or meetings outside in the fresh air. Consider telephone meetings instead of virtual meetings so staff can walk during the meeting
  13. Encourage staff to take their full lunch breaks, do not book meetings during typical lunch times

Over the years, symptoms of PTSD have raised their ugly head from time to time; I seem to be stuck with hypervigilance, and a chase scene in a film still fills me with panic! However, I am emotionally equipped to deal with this, and I am a huge advocate for exercise which helps keep my mental health in check, and overall, my mental health is in pretty good shape.

It really helps that I work for an organisation where, should any symptoms of PTSD come back to bite me, I can speak openly without fear of reprisal and be fully supported when needed.

For further information and support on mental health, TPP Recruitment’s Health and Wellbeing Hub contains a directory of useful resources.

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