Stress in the Workplace

By Natasha Devon

I’ve been working in schools, colleges and universities delivering talks and conducting research on mental health for more than a decade. It made sense to me to target adolescents for a number of reasons, not least of which that the average onset age for the most common mental illnesses (depression, anxiety, eating disorders, addiction, psychosis) have their peak onset around the age of fourteen. I was also guaranteed a captive audience. Back when I started this job, such was the taboo around mental ill health that if I’d tried to do a talk in any kind of public forum about three people would have shown up.

Over recent years, however, I have been hearing more and more regularly from young people who  are having to support parents with mental health difficulties. The most popular question I was being asked in schools changed from ‘how do I support a friend with..?’ to ‘what can I do for my Mum/Dad who has..?’ It became clear to me that I had to find a way to target adults, which is of course a much trickier proposition.

In 2016 I trained as an instructor for Mental Health First Aid England, an organisation which offers courses in how to support anyone you might know who has mental health difficulties. It occurred to me that if a colleague at work has a nosebleed, or requires an ambulance, we have specific protocol in place and people trained in the procedure to follow – It’s built into our workplace culture. When it comes to mental ill health, however, the opposite tends to happen. Whilst the awareness of the population has been raised, many still carry an overwhelming fear of saying or doing the ‘wrong’ thing. According to the Mental Health Foundation 1 in 6 of us will experience a mental health difficulty in the workplace and, as things stand, that’s likely to leave us feeling isolated and discriminated against.

At the beginning of this year, I teamed up with Bauer Media, who own brands such as Empire, Heat and Grazia Magazines as well as Kiss, Kerrang and Absolute Radio, to try and explore the extent of the problem. The results of our survey showed that 52% of the population have experienced a mental health challenge, that 86% considered it to be one of the biggest issues facing the country and yet, of those who had to take time off work for mental ill health, up to 50% had lied to their boss and told them it was for a different reason.

The study told us something crucial – namely that, despite so much hard work being undertaken by charities and campaigners in a bid to challenge stigma, mental illness is still tied up with ideas about ‘professionalism’ and ‘character’. We understand that you can recover from and manage physical health problems, but the same cannot be said for illness of the mind.

It became clear to me that a fundamental change in social attitudes was necessary and mental health first aid would be a good place to start. Mental Health First Aid courses teach that we all exist somewhere on a spectrum of mental health – putting paid to the notion that this is a topic relevant only relevant to that one in four we endlessly hear about. Furthermore, our position on the mental health spectrum will shift according to our circumstances throughout our lifetime. Just as we might eat healthily and take regular exercise to improve our physical fitness, so we can all improve our mental fitness.

MHFA also challenges us to reassess the impact of ‘stress’. We tend to think of stress as an inescapable part of life and to adopt a ‘keep calm and carry on’ mentality in relation to it a proud facet of Britishness. Yet in MHFA courses delegates learn that it is objectively stressful events and circumstances which are unavoidable and our consequent feelings of anxiety must be addressed through self-care and lifestyle. There is no shame in taking these steps to safeguard our wellbeing – Just as if we cut our finger and fail to apply antiseptic cream and a plaster the worst case scenario is blood infection and death, so if we leave stress to fester it accumulates and can lead to further mental health difficulties. It therefore makes total sense that evidence shows the earlier a mental health issue is identified the easier it is to treat and manage.

For all of these reasons, in partnership with Bauer Media and Mental Health First Aid England, I created ‘Where’s Your Head At’, a campaign which calls for an obligation to have mental health first aiders in the workplace to be enshrined into the Health & Safety at Work Act. Just as with ‘regular’ first aiders, mental health first aiders aren’t a substitute for professional medical care. However, just like their physical equivalents, their response has the power to save lives.

Our petition is being presented to No 10 Downing Street on World Mental Health Day, 10th October 2018. So far, it’s received endorsement from celebrities including Professor Green, Liam Payne, Tom & Giovanna Fletcher, Kem Cetinay and Magan McKenna, as well as being praised by Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan in the press. Chair of the Labour Campaign for Mental Health Luciana Berger, Lib Dem MP and campaigner Norman Lamb and Conservative MP William Wragg have also pledged to help us make the change in law a reality.

If you’d like to add your name to our growing army of supporters please visit www.wheresyourheadat.org.

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