Do any of these comments ring true for you?
“We cover mental health awareness with helplines, stress-awareness resources/training and support from mental health charities.”
“We have loads of resources on offer on our intranet, and we offer free yoga, massages and fruit to our employees.”
“We take mental health issues very seriously and have an active programme of options for anyone who needs support.”
These are comments I hear regularly from companies I work with. They are all perfectly valid and admirable approaches to the psychological health of those who work for them. Unfortunately, they only cover half of the picture.
The problem is that these are all strategies which assume a deficit, reactive model of the phrase ‘mental health’. In the same way that you wouldn’t consider yourself physically healthy if all you ever did was make sure you had your GP surgery’s phone number in your phone should something go wrong. The approach misses considerable opportunities to promote proactive mental health in our organisations – or as I would prefer to call it, mental well-being, mental nutrition, or mental flourishing; take your pick.
In the UK in 2014/15 9.9. million days were lost to stress, depression or anxiety, and the average days lost per case was 23. The reactive model is not working. In spite of great work by campaigns attempting to remove the stigma surrounding mental health problems (such as Time To Change), most organisations are still seeing the problem the wrong way – as a problem.
Pro-active positive psychology
The field of positive psychology has tried to turn this on its head; asking researchers to look at ‘what goes right’ with psychologically healthy people rather than what goes wrong. Using this knowledge we can promote healthy psychological habits for everyone – wherever their starting point is. A recent meta-analysis shows these interventions can have a sustainable impact on well-being and even on symptoms of depression. In the same way that we all know eating plenty of fruit and vegetables alongside regular exercise will help us improve and sustain our physical health. Unfortunately for the field, the inclusion of the word ‘happiness’ has lead to a backlash of misunderstanding (for example see this review of a well-known ‘anti-positive-thinking’ book). Some believe it is only about searching for a probably unreachable pure happy state, so what’s the point in trying?
True health = positive + negative
I’m arguing for organisations to take a more integrative approach. Psychological support and removal of stigma for those who are suffering – absolutely. As well as promotion of proactive, cognitively healthy habits which can help any of us in our day to day lives – available (or even mandatory) for all employees. The topic list is broad: understanding emotions, strengths, positive relationships, what it means to be engaged at work… all have the potential to prevent problems before they happen.
Resilience, for example, is not just something we need when things go really badly. We have daily frustrations and annoyances which impact our minds and ability to perform, and which we could better manage; if only we knew how. Research on proactive resilience training in schools, for example, has shown significant effects on participants’ mental flourishing later in their lives.
More research needs to be done within organisations – and my experience as a practitioner is only anecdotal at this stage. But I would bet all I have that a focus on topics such as resilience would ultimately reduce the suffering of many individuals, and the costs to the companies they work for. It is however, important to note that I am not saying it will eradicate mental illness.
Applying this to organisations
Think through the last time you didn’t perform as well as you might have done at a task at work. There will be lots of factors contributing to this, some in and some out of your control. Many factors will be down to your perception and interpretation of the situation. Are you conscious of how much is objective fact, and how much is a view you have formed because of your existing beliefs about people and the world you live in? Probably not. The simple focus on understanding your own cognitive patterns of belief would help you distinguish the two, and ultimately, deal with the situation in a more psychologically healthy way. All you need is the understanding and a bit of practice.
So HR and people teams, assess your mental health/L&D strategy. Is yours an approach that will help everyone become truly more mentally healthy?