Wednesday 30 May 2012

Stress Management, Happiness & The Taboo of Mental Health at Work
- Guest post by Mark Walsh of Integration Training

There are lots of way of talking about people being unhappy and suffering from mental health issues at work...except sometimes there isn’t. I work in the field of leadership, resilience and stress management training and it has become obvious to me that many organisations have a problem talking about vital staff welfare issues.

Stress Management Taboos
“Stress” is a relatively acceptable corporate word for suffering. The concept takes an integral psycho-social-cultural-organisational issue and makes it an individual matter. Someone is not overworked with an abusive manager in a horrible place, they are stressed and need to manage their stress, for example. On the positive side the idea of “stress management” (which was not in common usage until relatively recently) can allow people in the workplace to talk about mental distress in a relatively safe “scientific” way. There are still many organisations however where it is still taboo to discuss stress. Often people are trying to be something more than human, Superman or Wonder-woman perhaps, but end up creating an environment where people feel less than human. Denying stress exists doesn’t stop it destroying happiness, relationships and productivity. There are also organisations where “stress” has become a byword for other taboos - such as someone hating or being bad at their job, being bullied or working under unhealthy conditions of one kind or another.

Happiness Taboos
The common notion that we work for money not to be happy is odd and more than a little sick in my opinion. Why should this be the case? Well, the narrative that “you just have to work, so put up with...XYZ” is one that has been reinforced by people who do not care about employees’ happiness. Happiness itself has become something of a taboo 9-5 where it is considered largely irrelevant. Happily (excuse the pun), the positive psychology and conscious business movements have put happiness back on the agenda, showing how it is vital for productivity and creativity as well as the obvious ethical concern. This has led to a lean towards “happiness at work” and resilience trainings rather than stress management in recent years. Interestingly I have noticed that more men will sign up for a resilience training course (or even “mental toughness” course) than for stress management.

Mental Health Taboos
I am one of the teachers on the course 1 in 4 at Grassroots Training. This is the proportion of people who will suffer from a mental health problem in the UK in any one year, so mental health issues are far from rare! The most common ones are anxiety and depression, and addiction issues are also widespread if we class that as one too. Despite this mental health is still a massive taboo in most workplaces. If you break your arm or catch a virus and need time off work there would be no shame for most people, yet it is common to deny, hide and feel shame about mental health issues. Sadly, people that have mental health problems are often portrayed in the media as dangerous, pitiable or comical and these stereotypes are alive in many workplaces. In mental health awareness workshops when I describe how I once suffered from depression, substance misuse issues and PTSD, people often seem surprised that someone now extremely healthy and with a good business and relationship can have had this history. The taboos that exist around mental health issues at work are extremely damaging as may mean individuals are discriminated against illegally, bullied on top of their difficulties or do not seek appropriate support.  

Positive Steps
Here are some positive steps workplaces can take to reduce stigma in regard to these issues at work:

-  Acknowledge that such issues exist and start discussion and debate
-  Make the law on these issues widely known
-  Invest in mental health awareness and resilience and stress management training. Of course I’m biased and I do this work because I believe in it too.
-  Have someone responsible for these areas 
-  If you have had such issues and feel safe to, talk openly about them. It only takes one or two people to break a taboo and establish a new norm

Mark Walsh - Trainer Bio
Mark Walsh leads business training providers Integration Training - based in Brighton, London and Birmingham UK and the Netherlands. Specialising in working with emotions, the body and spirituality at work they help organisations get more done without going insane (time and stress management training), coordinate action more effectively (team building and communication training) and help leaders build impact, influence and presence (management training). Clients include Unilever, the Sierra Leonian Army and the University of Sussex. He is the most followed trainer on Twitter and YouTube and has the Google no.2 ranked management training blog. Offline, Mark dances, meditates and practices martial arts. His ambition is to help make it OK to be a human being at work.