This blog was first published on LinkedIn, 11 February, 2016
Offering meaningful support to those battling mental illness or grief is easier said than done at most workplaces. But with a little compassion, managers can do very simple things to help their employees facing tough times.
My story starts with a rising career. I had just landed a great marketing job at global technology firm with a senior title that I felt fitting of the hard work I had put in to get there. It was important for me to feel secure in my career, given what I was going through at home.
I had, at that stage, been struggling with a partner who was battling undiagnosed mental health issues. At the time, both of us were largely in denial that anything was wrong. The stigma of mental illness put pressure on both of us to battle on regardless, placing enormous strain on the relationship and at our respective workplaces.
My relationship didn’t end well, with my husband committing suicide; a story I detail in my book, Marrying Bipolar. All of a sudden I was thrust into a world of grief I had no clue how to navigate. The one thing that would stand out in my mind was the response from my manager.
“Take as much time as you need.”
The first response can often be the most raw. Mine was possibly one of the more awkward cases - an employee who has been suddenly thrust not only into grief, but the additional shock of suicide that rocks everyone. You may not be facing this as a manager (or co-worker) but rest assured, your colleague will only need to hear that they are supported in what they are going through. A simple “I’m sorry for your loss” will be sufficient if you don’t know them very well.
The most important thing, though, is to acknowledge that they are going through a tough time and that will-power alone will not be enough to get through.
“You will be tired quite often.”
With these simple words, my manager gave me permission to admit I wasn’t going to cope some days and he also told me it was okay for me to be absent when needed. It may be as simple as a “mental health” day when the weight of grief was too much to bear. Some days it was simply leaving work at 3pm. Knowing that I had his unquestioning support to feel all aspects of grief, especially the physical and mental drain it places on you, meant I coped in those early days.
The difference I experienced at this workplace compared with thousands of other tales I have heard is that my manager mandated this compassionate behaviour from the outset. While some colleagues may not have been happy to look the other way with my frequent absenteeism, he led by example and gave me room to get back to full strength in my own time. In doing so, he cemented my loyalty and guaranteed I remained supportive of him and committed to the team when the company went through its own turbulence the following year.
“Are you okay?”
Grief, situational depression, and eventually post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) hit me. I didn’t realise at the time, but each year, approximately one in every five Australians will experience a mental illness. It is crucial that employers play their part in supporting staff retention and helping people return to work after tough times. Mental health issues can refer to early signs of stress as well as medically diagnosed conditions such as depression, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
By asking this question frequently, and meaning it, my manager also rallied support from my co-workers. I had one colleague suggest an introduction to a psychologist that she had seen through a stressful time. It proved the start of my years-long journey back to a full recovery and mental wellness.
“There’s no pressure to perform at the same pace.”
It was clear my output was nowhere near the level it had been when I joined the company. However, I never felt there was any pressure to perform at any level other than the one I could cope with. You may think “this can’t apply in our workplace”; however in many cases simple and cost-effective workplace adjustments can make a big difference and can allow people with mental health issues to keep in touch with the working world and live healthy and productive lives. The adjustment needed could be a change in practice or workload.
There are plenty of resources out there for anyone to access in helping employees through tough times. Start with BeyondBlue, The Black Dog Institute and SANE Australia - these are all reputable support institutions that can help with information and practical advice on how to support employees facing a difficult time.
From a business perspective, proactive management of employees’ mental and physical health can produce a range of benefits, including reduction of sickness absence, greater staff engagement and productivity, and reduced staff turnover, recruitment and costs. Making a few small adjustments to enable a member of staff to continue doing their job is far less expensive than the costs incurred through recruiting and training a new employee. Most adjustments cost nothing.
I’d like nothing better than to see many of these suggested practices begin before they are needed. Coping with stress and nurturing mental health is an essential part of working life, and equipping workplaces to have greater sensitivity and compassion can mean the difference between losing valuable employees to mental illness and going beyond surviving to thriving as I did again!
According to The Guardian this is already happening in the UK, as some employers are beginning to build mental health support into the core of their working practices. After a partner at the tax and auditing firm Deloitte UK suffered an episode of acute depression, the senior management started a discussion about how better to support the company's 14,000 employees. The result was a network of mental health champions who are available for informal chats or to provide more detailed advice on the support available to those who might be struggling.
One thing is certain, all of us works with, or has worked with, someone facing mental illness or grief. As an employer, if you're not seen as having a much more open culture around mental health, you'll be seen as being totally out of touch. What kind of message do you want to send to your employees?
My book, Marrying Bipolar, is available for purchase here. Each copy is delivered signed with a personal message for each reader.
My managing director during this time of my life, Tony Hughes, who showed infinite wisdom and compassion ten years ago with my situation has also written a great blog on Suicide And The Workplace — Sales Career Truth from his perspective.
Welcome to my book website, Marrying Bipolar. As you made it to the blog, you may be interested in learning a little more about me. I was born and bred in Sydney since 1973 to a very tight knit and loving family. We all have our issues, though, and my life's ambition was to become the best person I could be through education, hard yakka (that's work for non-Australians reading this!) and trying to learn as much about myself and others as possible.