The suicide of a former colleague made Babel’s Sarah Alonze realise the importance of discussing mental health

Late last year, I received an unexpected phone call from a close friend and former mentor. One of our former colleagues had committed suicide, following years of battling depression. My instant reaction was surprise – this colleague was bright, quick-witted and popular with clients and colleagues alike. I had no idea he had struggled with his mental health for years until, finally, it was just too much.

Surprise then quickly turned to profound sadness. Looking back, I’d never once asked him how he really was – I had just assumed everything was ok because he didn’t say otherwise. This is the unfortunate reality of mental health – we often don’t know until we ask. And we usually don’t ask. For a long time, stigma has prevented mental health sufferers from sharing their battles with friends and family. Some people aren’t comfortable talking about the personal aspects of their life, or indeed hearing this information from others.  

The stark reality

You only need to look at the statistics to see how pervasive mental health is today. According to mental-health charity Mind, one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. In England, one in six people report experiencing a common mental health problem, such as anxiety and depression, in any given week. Think of how many people there are in your place of work right now; think of your extended family and group of friends. Now do the maths – mental health is a stark reality in today’s society.

Mind argues that, whilst the overall number of people with mental health problems has not changed over the years, modern-day worries – over issues such as money, jobs, longer working hours and social media – have made it more difficult for people to cope. Around 70 million work days are lost each year due to mental health problems in the UK, according to the Mental Health Foundation, costing employers approximately £2.4 billion per year. And it’s obviously not just about the money – it’s about the happiness of our staff, which should be paramount to all employers.  

Mental health in PR

Why is mental health the leading cause of sickness in the workplace? Let’s take the communications industry as an example. According to a 2017 report 57% of those interviewed said they would feel uncomfortable discussing their mental health in the workplace. Some of the PR practitioners even went as far to say that mental health had been cited as grounds for dismissal. So it’s no surprise that nearly a third of UK staff working in the PR industry persistently turn up to work ill and only 35% are generally healthy and present, according to the CIPD’s Absence Management Report.

Whilst all industries differ, the key factors affecting mental health in the workplace are more or less shared – financial worries; an always-on, out-of-hours culture; the pressure of deadlines; office politics; poor management teams, the list can go on.  

Nurture your people

The reality is, despite mental health gaining the awareness it deserves, there’s still quite a bit of work to be done to educate people and provide appropriate resources on how to handle mental health issues effectively, as well as better support to those who are suffering.

Here are just a few ways that employers can invest in mental health in the workplace:

  • Update staff policies to include mental health. By acknowledging that mental health is on a par with physical health, and allowing team members to take sick days for mental health issues, then you’re sending a positive and open message to the wider workforce, as well as supporting those who are struggling.
  • Offer counselling and similar therapy services as a benefit. Some businesses already offer healthcare within staff remuneration packages. Check to see if these health insurance policies cover mental health treatments, or find a policy that does.
  • Train line managers and leadership teams to deal with mental health issues effectively, compassionately and delicately. Look for resources online that can help inform leaders, or contact a mental health organisation for advice.
  • Crack down on discrimination and stigma in the workplace. Ensure all staff know that any discrimination towards a fellow employee on the grounds of mental health status is unacceptable and a disciplinary matter.
  • Foster a healthy, productive environment for all staff that includes access to internal and external resources, contacts and experts for support with mental health problems.

Receiving that phone call last year was gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, and an alarming reminder that mental health is real. It’s real for different people in different ways, but it’s a reality that we all have to face in some way – whether directly, or indirectly. And that’s okay. But if you have any sort of influence on a colleague, manager or peer in the workplace, try to make it a positive one. Be willing to listen, ask to be heard, and let’s tackle mental health one step at a time.

Written by Sarah Alonze, associate director at agency Babel PR

For more information, the Mental Health Foundation offers free advice on how best to look after your mental health at work, and how you can support your colleagues.