Why having a conversation about mental health in the workplace might not be so simple

Struggling to cope. Robert Kneschke/Shutterstock

For many people experiencing mental health difficulties, fear of the stigma associated with conditions can affect how they relate to others. This fear is not just limited to social interactions, it can affect all aspects of life, including the workplace.

At work, the potential reactions of both colleagues and employers may make those struggling with a mental health condition feel unable to be open about their experiences. This is not a small problem, it is claimed that 95% of employees calling in sick with stress give a different reason for needing time off.

There have been some moves to tackle the problem in the UK, however. Mental health discrimination initiative Time to Change has formulated an employer pledge, through which companies can demonstrate their “commitment to change how we think and act about mental health in the workplace, and make sure that employees who are facing these problems feel supported”.

At the time of writing, 865 organisations have made the pledge. It’s encouraging to see so many companies taking the issue seriously – but this pledge does not go far enough. In seeking to challenge the stigma in the workplace, it is easy to think that creating an atmosphere which encourages openly talking about mental health will help to address the issue. It means employees would be free to talk about their experiences without fear of being judged. For those who had felt that they had to keep their experiences secret this might seem like a new and valuable freedom. But things might not be so simple.

Being yourself

In the 1970s, the French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote, “one has to have an inverted image of power to believe that all those voices … repeating the formidable injunction to tell what one is and what one does … are speaking to us of freedom”. Foucault was writing about the Christian confessional rather than about chatting to office colleagues at the coffee machine, yet his point is still relevant.

Foucault points out that we may often think that the ability to express who we are is a way of expressing our freedom from power. However, for him, it is important to recognise that describing yourself as a person who thinks or feels certain things means that you become identified as a certain kind of person. This actually means being subject to a certain kind of power. In other words, when a person talks about their mental health in the workplace there is a danger that they can become tied – and possibly reduced – to it.

A positive atmosphere is simply not the solution. bixstock/Shutterstock

If an employee approaches a line manager or member of the HR team and explains that they have recently been experiencing low moods, there are two ways of seeing this. One is that the person is having a difficult time, but that this is understandable given recent events – maybe they’ve broken up with their partner or a loved one has died.

Another way is to think that the person is naturally inclined to feel this way. This could involve beliefs about their genetic history, or the idea that they have a depressive personality. The difference between these two versions of events is between understanding the story as an experience the person has, and something the person is.

You are not your mental health

It may not be obvious why this distinction matters, or why it might be a problem. After all, in both cases the person is seeking help and can expect support from their organisation. The problem with understanding mental health as part of who we are is that it puts us in danger of ignoring the way in which our environment has a large effect on our mental health.

Suppose that an employee tells their line manager they are feeling stressed in work and finding it difficult to cope. One way to respond is based upon the belief that this person is someone who naturally gets stressed. In this case we might offer them support, possibly access to an employee assistance programme. The other way would be to look at other factors, for example the person’s workload. Maybe unreasonable demands are being made and they are being asked to do too much. Perhaps what they are expected to do would make anyone stressed.

While the aim of destigmatising mental health in the workplace is admirable, we must consider what this entails. We need to understand the important role that our day-to-day experiences – including experiences of work – have in shaping our mental health. Unless we appreciate the effect of these experiences we will simply be finding ways for people to cope rather than helping them in a meaningful way.