haw-week-badgeHRreview: Where do you think the challenges lie when it comes to approaching mental health in the workplace?

Steve Walter: The first thing that springs to mind with me is overcoming stigma. I know there are some major campaigns going on with Time to Change, but in the workplace I think there’s still a lot of stigma associated with mental ill-health, and it’s often very difficult to talk about it. So somehow it’s about breaking down those barriers so that people can be accepted in the workplace.

Do you think there’s a difference between how employers and employees should approach the issue?

I think it’s similar really. It’s a combined approach and from an employer’s point of view it can be helped by recognising individuals in terms of reasonable adjustments that they may need to help maximise their performance, but also by recognising them from a diversity point of view as well – placing some value on the fact that we’re each different and there’s some strength in that difference. Diversity programmes can be beneficial – some places have a lunchtime meeting and people talk about their ‘disabilities’, in inverted commas – for people to understand more about how they are and what they’re experiencing. I think that helps employees break down some of their prejudices.

Would you say it’s possible that many employees suffer from mental health issues but never actually realise it?

I don’t think that would be many, no. I know that one in four people have some kind of mental health condition but I’d think most people would be aware of it, whether it’s anxiety, depression, one of the psychoses, manic depression – they’d be aware of the difference, that they’ve had some illness.

If awareness of mental health was raised in all workplaces, to what we would call a ‘satisfactory level’, do you foresee there being a problem with people claiming ailments that were deemed insignificant? People get stressed at work, so where do you draw the line between anxiety and ‘some stress’?

I suppose this comes back to putting people in boxes and sticking labels on them really. It’s not always going to be black and white, as in you’ve got anxiety one minute but are not affected by stress, because any other stress could compound the feelings of anxiety. Managing stress within an organisation, there’s a whole host of tools you can put in place to try to do that, from an organisational point of view and an individual point of view. Where there may well be somebody who’s got more anxiety and is suffering from that, trying to reduce the impact of stress is going to make their condition better.

You use a narrative approach to mental health awareness. What do you think the advantages are of that?

Well, from a personal point of view it’s been helpful for me just sharing my story, and certainly when it was first issued on the HSE website I had a number of people approach me saying it was helpful for them that somebody had talked about similar experiences, so that was a bonus.

From my own point of view it was kind of a therapeutic thing to speak out about my condition, and that helped a lot back then. I’ve also been involved outside of work in terms of performance, doing events at the Edinburgh and Brighton fringe festivals as well, making a bit of performance theatre out of the story.

In terms of mental health and how it shouldn’t affect your career prospects – is there more that needs to be done?

Yes there is. In terms of employers accepting the prevalence of mental health conditions and recognising that some people are going to be better placed – having had experience of breakdowns, for example – to manage and cope with stresses in the job. There wouldn’t be any sense in pretending that everything is absolutely fine. If you have a mental condition then you should be able to manage that person and their experience and be able to draw out what’s going to most help them perform to their best in the workplace, but manage that person as an individual and not necessarily with a label.

My own personal point of view, from working at Servomex, is not being so straightforward in terms of sharing mental health experiences. It’s becoming more so. We’ve got a new personnel director who’s more enlightened. In my previous job I had the opportunity to share mental health issues more widely within the workplace and be able to share my experience, which was really beneficial.

Why do you think that some managers are less comfortable discussing such things?

I think it’s a lack of understanding and the concern, or fear of differences and not being able to put it into a certain pigeon-hole. It’s a lack of awareness I’d say.

What would you suggest needs to be done to improve that?

I think a lot of the approaches for managing stress in the workplace have benefits for managing mental health conditions. The fact that you identify demands, control, support, relationships, role and change as being key factors in the organisation, that can have positive benefits for people with mental health conditions as well.