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No health without mental health: Leadership for a thriving workplace

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Conversations about mental health have become more visible and acceptable in society, but there is one place where it is still invisible: the workplace.

Depression and anxiety affect one in six people in the UK, and if left unattended, can lead to lowered immunity, disability, and suicide. These conditions have been linked to millions of pounds in profit loss and high health care use.

Although we’re all talking about the importance of mental wellbeing when it comes to our private lives, not much is said about mental health in the workplace. If you’re struggling with anxiety or depression on the job and are finding it hard to concentrate, or your chronic insomnia and gastrointestinal symptoms are making it difficult for you to sit in front of the computer for 8 hours, it often feels like it’s a one-person battle. You’re fighting it alone and it seems like no one understands or is willing to help. This is because mental illness doesn’t leave marks or scars on your body, so people assume you’re all right. But did you know that a common condition among adults – which is smiling depression – can be a silent killer without leaving any traces? If you have smiling depression, you tend to put on a façade or ‘happy face’ to the outside world: you interact with your co-workers and fulfil your obligations both in your professional and private life, and no one would ever suspect anything is amiss. But deep down, you feel empty and hopeless. People affected by this condition might be especially prone to suicide. But employers and employees don’t know that. And this is because it’s not talked about.

The pandemic has put an even greater dent in our mental health. In March, anxiety and hopelessness shot up, and in the last few months, we’ve been seeing OCD flare-ups. Our lives have changed in ways that we wouldn’t have anticipated a year ago and this has caused us much stress and overwhelm – which affects us on the job. Not to mention the transition of working from home and dealing with delays in medical care.

These sudden changes have resulted in a dire situation which can no longer be ignored. This is why it’s time to change the workplace culture and increase the visibility of mental health. This is why it’s time to take charge and make support known and available to employees who are struggling even though they may not be showing any signs. This is why it’s time to make people’s wellbeing priority. Because companies who do this show they care. Because a mentally healthy workforce translates into happier people, greater productivity and a better economy. When people experience wellbeing on the job, they are better workers, better partners, and better parents. They’re more engaged with their communities and contribute to resilient societies.

Leaders need to consider mental health and wellbeing as top priority areas. Their leadership toolkit should better prepare those in management positions for unanticipated mental health consequences as this pandemic unfolds, in addition to dealing with the already widespread burden of mental illness in the workforce.

Those in leadership positions should act fully informed about key issues they need to think about when it comes to the wellbeing of their staff and evidence-based strategies that can tackle those issues. The knowledge they have should provide insight as to how employees can be better supported in their role, with particular attention given to those who are new or leaving organisations. There are many things to think about when it comes to developing this leadership capacity, but one thing is for sure: there’s no health without mental health. If companies and organisations want to create a thriving workplace community and a culture of resilience and productivity, employee wellbeing needs to be at the top of the list.

Dr Olivia Remes
Olivia is a mental health researcher at the University of Cambridge. She regularly appears on BBC Cambridgeshire radio with tips on mental health and wellbeing.


Inspire

This insight was first featured in our leadership insights magazine Inspire, to view past issues click here.

Picture of Inspire magazine by Moller Institute