Beating the stigma; discussing mental health in your school

Stress, anxiety, depression – all can be symptoms of a high-pressure work environment, all can result in poor mental health when experienced over a prolonged period. In the fast-paced school environment, it’s important to be able to raise the issue.

Dr Paul McLaren, consultant psychiatrist at Priory’s Hayes Grove Hospital, Kent, and at Priory’s high street Wellbeing Centres in Harley Street and Fenchurch Street, London, imparts 10 important things to remember when it comes to discussing your mental health.

When you work in an environment where everyone is equally busy, equally under pressure, equally burdened – be that in different ways according to their role in the school – all too easily do we accept the added pressures of working life, rather than question them. Many may even consider it a weakness to suggest they are unable to cope.

But mental health has risen up the workplace agenda – and it starts by having a conversation with your manager. Recent research by Business in the Community found the majority (84%) of managers acknowledged that employee wellbeing was their responsibility. More than 11 million days a year are lost at work because of stress and employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it.

After all, stress, anxiety and depression may result in significant mental health problems when experienced over a long time.

Dr Paul McLaren discusses how best to raise the issue; he says that there are several approaches employees can take to address their mental health and that – by ‘tackling the taboo’ – they may be pleasantly surprised by the positive response. After all, he says, healthier employees improve the bottom line.

1. Remember a mental health problem is no different to reporting a problem with your physical health…it just feels different.

When we are depressed, we often have strong feelings of shame about how we’re feeling. That’s not just a psychological reaction but part of the biology of depression. Shame leads us to hide away but hiding away makes our situation worse in the workplace and elsewhere. Think about the origins of how you are feeling.

2. Finding the right words can be difficult.

If you can’t find the words to explain how you feel, or to ask for the help you may need from your employer, write it down first in an email or letter… Check it and run it past someone close.

3. Rather than making it about how you ‘feel’, focus on the impact your mental health is having on your work and productivity – and how you can work together to improve the situation.

Be safe in the knowledge that your employer will want to help you not least because it makes good business sense.

4. It’s entirely up to you how much you want to disclose.

You are under no obligation to ‘name’ your condition but be careful about words like ‘stress’, which can mean many different things and is often misinterpreted. If you have seen your doctor, and have a diagnosis, then let your employer know you are ill.

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5. Don’t sweat about the so-called stigma.

Stigma and discrimination about mental health are ‘not allowed’ to exist in the 2018 workplace. Most responsible employers recognise that, and many take positive steps to reduce it by educating their workforce about mental, as well as physical, wellbeing.

6. If you really feel you can’t face talking to your boss, seek help in the form of a mediator.

You don’t have to do this alone if you don’t want to. Help and support can often be found in your HR department (if the school has one), through a trusted colleague, via an occupational health officer or a representative from ACAS.

7. Face your fear and recognise that your boss may be more receptive than you think.

These days mental ill health is the most common reason for sickness absence. Between one-in-five and one-in-six people will seek help for depression at some time so, the chances are that someone in your office or management team will have direct experience of it – either through having suffered themselves or being close to someone who did.

8. Check out what is on offer at work.

Companies both large and small across the UK invest in their employee wellbeing and want to provide support to their employees. This might include free phone counselling and short-term, face-to-face counselling (typically six to eight sessions).

Care First, part of the Priory Group, operates an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) for many UK employers consisting of a 24/7 telephone counselling helpline, face-to-face counselling and a range of services such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) programmes, and an online health and wellbeing programme and an ‘EAP in Your Pocket’, which is an app giving employees access to tools for stress and anxiety. Users track their mood over time and receive help to maximise their coping mechanisms. Check whether your employer offers this too, as it is free for employees and hugely valuable.

9. Don’t forget to let them know how they did.

When you have weathered the storm and recovered, let your employer know how they did. What was helpful for you when you were struggling? Help your organisation to learn from your experience.

10. By speaking up, you are helping yourself and others.

As a valued employee, with knowledge and experience, your school has invested time and training in you and want you to be productive. When we get depressed we lose sight of that. By speaking up, you are helping yourself – and them.

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