I could not let Time to Talk Day pass without sharing my thoughts on the perennial problem of mental health in the workplace. Because you see this is a subject close to my (new) heart and something I have been talking about for over a decade. Finally it seems businesses are ready to listen. Or are they?
Talking saves lives. We know that for some people being able to voice their feelings is vital to wellbeing. Look at what the Samaritans do on a daily basis. Their incredible work saves countless lives. Just having someone listen and being able to normalize feelings has such power. LawCare offers a helpline for stressed-out lawyers. They too know that a sympathetic ear brings huge relief.
I however have some quite major concerns about talking about mental health in the workplace. I have an equal number of concerns about the fact that mental health at work is “trendy”. (Don’t get me started on Mental Health First Aid!) Of course I am pleased that mental health is on the agenda now in a way it just wasn’t in 2008 when I started didlaw. I was talking into a vacuum at that stage. It’s great that every day I see something about mental health and work on various different media. But we have to make sure this isn’t a trend, that it has meaning and that things really are changing. I do not believe the stigma is any less than it always was. I’ve said it before: being Stephen Fry and being able to be open about bipolar is all very well if you’re a respected actor who frankly doesn’t need a day job to pay the bills. For most mortals with bipolar they daren’t even think about declaring their condition when applying for a job. They wouldn’t even make it to interview such is the stigma.
The reality is this: talking is great, but doing is better. Change is afoot but it is far from achieved. Especially when, with my litigator hat on, I see daily what employers really think about mental health. Blocking individuals from returning to work from sickness absence on health and safety grounds, subjecting them to overly intrusive occupational health follow up, putting obstacles in the way. Believe me I know of many companies who have signed business charters and who have umpteen mental health badges and accolades on their email footers – hell, some even win prizes for their mental health at work initiatives: but yet they continue to discriminate on a daily basis. And cause harm. Sometimes ending careers.
So, yes, let’s talk, let’s keep talking, let’s always encourage one another to talk. But what we need, what we really need, is action on the ground. True change. And I for one will not stop banging on about it until it really happens. I am telling you: it’s a long way off.