Minding your Mental Health at Work

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The World Health Organisation defines mental health as a “state of well-being in which every individual realises his masks-833421_960_720or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Sometimes we are physically fit, well and healthy, mentally content and feeling bright, ready for the day ahead – and sometimes we are less so. In the same way as we would look after our body’s health, we now realize the importance of taking care of the mind.

That said, it’s normal and natural to experience general everyday worries, and emotional lows, even in the most enjoyable and successful of human lives. One in four of us will experience a mental health difficulty in our lifetime. It’s likely that you, one of your friends, colleagues or family members will – one day – experience a mental health problem. Because mental illness can be invisible to others, it sometimes leaves people feeling isolated or misunderstood; and very unfortunately, because some people are not well informed on mental health issues, it can be met with ignorance, fear, and prejudice. However, the tide is turning for mental health stigma: governments, health services, organizations, charities and employers are all contributing more in recent years – through protective legislation, public awareness campaigns, and pledging support and resources to mental health research and treatment.

If you are going through a hard time, the first step is often simply to acknowledge your unique situation. Everyone is different. How we respond to the challenges of life and to mental health difficulties can vary from person to person. No single article could adequately address individual health problems; but hopefully, it may offer encouragement to reflect and consider reaching out for support when it’s needed. Nowadays, most of us have access not only to a general practitioner but also to a profusion of accessible resources ranging from websites to support groups to employee assistance programs where our own unique concerns can be more appropriately addressed. This article focuses on what steps to take if you are suffering from a mental health issue which is affecting your work performance. If you are an employer, this article may help you understand the perspective of employees who are experiencing a mental health issue.

Mental health issues can affect our ability to cope with everyday life, including work. Sometimes little things are just more stressful than usual, or our mood is low; it may feel impossible to get out of bed, facing a commute and long day at work; or it may not be safe to work. Often when matters are minor, we can deal with them ourselves and simply being mindful of, and tending to our own needs can help smooth over the working day. Taking rest breaks properly, eating healthily, and getting exercise are all staples of general day to day workplace wellness. Try to stay involved with some leisure or social activities. Talking about things can really ease a lot of burdens – for example, having friends to confide in occasionally can ease the burden and cheer you up; and professional support like counselling can be really helpful.

You may not relish the prospect of disclosing personal information to your employer; and when it relates to ill-health of any sort it can be particularly daunting. However, if your employer is not aware of your situation, their capacity to understand your needs and provide the right support will be more limited. Also, in the case that ill-health could fall under the definition of a disability, this may be even more important to avail of the protections available to you. In England and Wales, for example, if you have a mental health problem that is a disability and you want the protection of the Equality Act, your employer must be informed.

Remember that telling your employer is a responsible, co-operative action and you deserve to be treated with the same dignity and respect after disclosure as you had before. You may be surprised to find your employer is more understanding than you expect. Sometimes, it’s quite apparent when people aren’t their usual selves. Don’t forget that employers are human too. Your employer or manager may be genuinely concerned about your well-being or noticing issues with performance – and to understand the roots of the issues may be a relief to the employer as much as the employee.

Mind, a UK mental health charity, offers some helpful tips to think about before disclosing your situation.

  • How and when to do it. It can be helpful to have a note from your doctor to help explain your situation.
  • How much information you want to give. You don’t have to go into personal details, just focus on what you need to share about the job.
  • Whom to share it with. For example, the human resources department may know your diagnosis, but they don’t have to tell your supervisor or colleagues.

Depending on their experience of dealing with mental health issues, your employer may not know immediately what to do. Fortunately, nowadays, employers will find more information and support materials for them to upskill quickly. It’s advisable to consider occupational health or employee assistance programmes. Hopefully, you can work together co-operatively to find the optimal steps to take for both you and your employer.

In the UK, the Equality Act protects employees who are suffering a disability, including a disability relating to mental health, from discrimination when are applying for a job, working, being made redundant or being dismissed.  Irish employers should be aware that they have too have responsibilities (under the Employment Equality Acts 1998 to 2015, the Disability Act 2005 and the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005). In general terms, employers are under an obligation to provide “reasonable accommodation” for individuals with disabilities, which can include disabilities involving mental health, without imposing a “disproportionate burden” on the employer. Typically the requirements for reasonable accommodation apply to access to employment, participation and advancement in employment and access to training – essentially, requiring that people who can do the job with reasonable accommodation are empowered to do so.

The Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation advises that reasonable accommodation does not mean that an employer is required to recruit, promote, retain or provide training to people who do not have the capacity to do a particular job. However, employers cannot arbitrarily decide that a person with a disability is incapable of doing a particular job. It is their duty to considering whether there are appropriate measures which they could take to support the person to carry out the required duties. In practice, looking at case law, employers are well advised to seek independent, relevant medical expertise regarding persons with mental health issues prior to making decisions affecting their employment.

In summary, as employees, we should actively take care of our mental health. It’s a good idea to learn about mental health and seek assistance from your general practitioner or other resources if you have concerns and, if your work is becoming affected, it may be useful to talk to your employer. The best, most satisfactory outcomes, are most often reached through honest and timely communication, collaboration and empathy between both sides.

Mary White

Email: mwhite@hmc-ip.com    July 2016

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