It’s that manic time of year again. The silly season at the start of summer.
It’s that time of year when our brains are full, our bodies are tired, and everyone is in desperate need of a holiday.
With that in mind, there wasn’t a lot of Christmas cheer to be found in the recently released New Zealand Health Survey. The headline results reported that while Kiwis are smoking less, we’re “getting fatter and sadder” (headline on Stuff.co.nz).
It’s a brutal headline, but the truth is there in the facts. New Zealand has one of the highest obesity rates in the world and one of the worst suicide rates.
Over the past year, I’ve met with a good number of people from a range of industries to talk about wellbeing. A familiar theme has been that of mental health. It is an increasing problem and there is uncertainty about what to do from a business perspective and a personal perspective.
I’ve heard stories of employees that have been left largely unsupported after traumatic incidents, and of leaders needing immediate acute mental health help because the pressure has been unrelenting for far too long. For some, that help has not come soon enough and families have been left bereft of an irreplaceable, loved family member.
There have been many other stories of people feeling under pressure without hope, and people feeling stressed without adequate support mechanisms. Some people I spoke with had no idea where to get appropriate help. Some had used employee assistance programme services, but many had not.
My view is that we are at the tipping point of mental health. More people need help, and we cannot afford to keep going as we have. As businesses, we can no longer ignore that we have a mental health problem in this country and we all have a responsibility to do something about it.
The time is now
Up until recently, we’ve talked around the edges of mental health at work with varying comfort levels. We know that the workplace is part of the problem. Statistics tell us “general workload” is one of the key stressors of working adults.
Yet, when I dig around to understand how leaders have supported others experiencing mental health issues, the response is left wanting.
Organisations like the Mental Health Foundation have valiantly tried to get the country to address the problem, while promotions and campaigns like Movember and Mental Health Week have pushed the problem out into the open to encourage discussion.
It would be remiss not to recognise businesses that have made commendable inroads to try to change the perception of mental health at work. The Cawthorn Institute in Nelson, for example, is a great case study of an organisation building a culture where it’s ok to speak up.
In November 2017, WorkSafe released a position on the importance of mental health protection in the workplace – proving it’s now on everyone’s radar.
If it’s not on yours – it should be now.
Support in the wings?
With the change of Government, we’ve been promised better mental health support services. The question will be, will it be enough? My hunch is not. More support is welcomed, but we know from behaviour change science that it is very difficult for a person to improve their wellbeing when their environment is unsupportive, when there is little or no social support, and/or the person lacks the necessary knowledge and confidence to act.
As businesses we can either continue to contribute to the problem, or do something about it.
Frankly, the current response is not good enough.
As leaders, we need to take a stand and be better role models and better enablers of healthy work environments. We don’t have to be counsellors. That’s not our job. Our job is to create environments that support others to flourish.
Sticks and stones
There are many factors that contribute to a better work environment, and a broader conversation is needed on how best to address them in relation to mental health.
There is, however, one factor we can address today that will make a difference, and that’s the stigma attached to mental health . Having poor “mental health” is often associated with the clinical side of health – the extreme end of being unwell. Having “mental health” problems can be associated with “being unstable” or – at worst – “crazy”. Yet, we all have mental health – to varying degrees of good, not good or indifferent. Campaigns like Like Minds, Like Mine have some great resources available to help change that view in the workplace and it’s a great place to start.
There is also evidence that using different words can help to engage people in comfortable conversation.
We are now starting to use other terms that easy translate into what it means to have good mental health. Terms like “mental wellbeing” or “mental fitness” are used, with the latter recognising that sometimes we feel fit and other times we don’t – and that’s normal and ok.
The Global Wellness Institute defines mental wellbeing as follows.
“Mental wellbeing includes the capacity to make health and happiness enhancing relationships with others. People with mental wellbeing know themselves and their needs, have clear boundaries, relate to others using the skills of emotional literacy and accept and manage conflict without manipulation or coercion.
People with mental wellbeing are also generous, wise and compassionate. They make good decisions on behalf of others. It therefore follows that promoting the mental wellbeing of all, particularly of those who are in positions of power, is an important approach to preventing social inequality and unhealthy policy.”
Mental wellbeing is something we have the capacity to have, and all have the capacity to enable in our communities.
Set the standard
For your own health and wellbeing, I strongly encourage you to make the most of the summer break ahead. Use the Mental Health Foundation’s Five Ways to Wellbeing to boost your health and have some rest and relaxation away from the pressures of work. Enjoy the time with family and friends. Get out into the great outdoors. Talk to others about how you’re doing, and ask them the same.
I also encourage you to reflect on the year past and the year to come.
Thinking ahead to 2018, I encourage you to consider the old health and safety adage: “The standard you walk past is the standard you set”.
In 2018, set the standard. Decide what it means to be a mental wellbeing role model in your life and in your workplace and then do something about it.
Be the kind of leader that cares enough to make a difference throughout the year. Read, up-skill, and connect with others. Be the kind of leader that supports mental wellbeing in a way that means that we don’t have to keep having this silly season right at the end.