Are companies doing enough for employees who experience mental health issues?

10 Feb Are companies doing enough for employees who experience mental health issues?

Short answer: No, I don’t think so. 

I had a Jerry Maguire moment last month. If you are too young to know what this means, it references a 90s movie about a man working for a fast-paced sports agency before becoming inspired by an idea which he was convinced would change the world.  He proceeded to write a heartfelt memo which he sent it to the entire office, but instead of becoming the office hero, he gets fired.   

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I am no Tom Cruise, nor do I think I will change the world with my writing, but I still get inspired to share my thoughts when I feel strongly about something, and as it is January – a depressing month, that ‘something’ is Mental Health, specifically depression and how it effects your career.

 Why depression you may ask? The World Health Organization (WHO, 2004) declared depression to be one of the most common mental illnesses in the world and suggested that depression is anticipated to be the “leading cause of burden of disease” by 2030.  It’s not only widespread, it has very serious repercussions for both business and wellbeing, and it’s my opinion that we are not doing enough to help or prevent the illness. Both the world of academia and several companies have started initiatives to help employees who suffer from mental health issues, but that is just the beginning, there is so much more thinking and building to do. I know that collectively, we can do more and do it better. 

Based on 18 different academic journals on the topic, three big challenges for people with depression in the workplace are:

Lack of Managerial support

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We depend on our managers for both validation and career development; without them our organisational survival is at risk . But the level of support we receive is not equally spread amongst us. Research has revealed disturbing evidence showing the amount of support we receive from our managers is directly related to how happy we are (Boehm & Lyubomirsky, 2008).  Boehm & Lyubomirsky (2008) also found that those who scored higher for at-work happiness also scored higher in performance reviews. This doesn’t bode well for the ratings of people who feel depressed for prolonged periods of time.

It is the manager’s responsibility to give productive feedback to every employee. Feedback is essential for career progression because it demonstrates where we must evolve to master our trade. If a person’s mental health issues are known to the manager, this may have a negative impact on the manager’s ability to have effective feedback conversations. Studies show a reluctance to be critical or honest, fearing the repercussions of the conversation. Consequently, by avoiding critical feedback, managers are not only stagnating the person’s evolution, but withholding something even more important for those with mental health issues: Validation.   

I believe that more support and more training is needed to help both managers and employees deal with the growing issue of depression at work. I am not suggesting that support will cure the issue, only that being at work won’t be as frightening for those effected, nor will it exacerbate the condition.

Well Known Stigma

With widespread stigma around mental health issues at work (Kirsh et al., 2018) people who feel depressed are reluctant to reveal their illness to colleagues and employers. The moment they reveal their mental health issue, they are opening themselves up to prejudice.  It won’t surprise you to read that many people who are affected with depression tend to consider the stigma to be equally damaging as the disease itself.  

Despite companies best effort to tackle stigma, leaders experience daily challenges around addressing the condition. According to their study, many managers become uncomfortable discerning when to cross privacy boundaries and how to be certain if an employee is “Pulling the mental health card” (Kirsh et al., 2018, p. 550).

How can we decrease the stigma? There are massive campaigns trying, but I think it may be a good idea to personalise the issue. Imagine if your colleague revealed their Mental Health issue to you, how would you react, honestly? And if the honest truth doesn’t feel right, how could you change your reaction? 

Networking

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The old adage of success being tied to ‘location’ has now been replaced by the need to be ‘seen, known, and heard’ (ie: social networking). Networking encourages people to take responsibility for their own progress and development opportunities, and opens prospects by becoming visible and noticed by key decision makers. Evidence suggests that far too often, your career progress comes down to who you know and who likes you. This is why those locker room chats (a.k.a informal networking) because they offer access to influential circles where many decisions are made. (Wyatt & Silvester, 2015).

With the importance of social networking being higher than ever, where does that leave people with mental health issues? Unsurprisingly, people who feel depressed have a reduced desire for social interaction. Social anxiety disorder is often found in people with depression which leads to panic attacks and feelings of unworthiness.  Without the ability to interact formally or informally, there is a massive disadvantaged in career opportunities compared to those without mental health issues. 

In summary, social anxiety, a lack of managerial support and stigma in the workplace seem to be working against support for mental health issues.  Harry, Megan and Will can campaign all they want, but unless companies change their systems, they are contributing to the condition’s existence by feeding feelings of low self-esteem which results in continuing depression. More action and thought is needed to understand this ‘vicious circle’; how it negatively impacts the careers of those suffering depression, and what can be done to alleviate it.  



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