I am bipolar.
And I am thriving.
(Most of the time).
I am also on a mission to smash the stigma of mental ill-health in the workplace. This article considers why doing this is so important.
Imagine this scenario..
You fall over outside and cut yourself. Not all that badly. You clean your wounds when you get home.
The next day you wake up and don’t feel your best. You are feverish and your heart is beating faster than normal. You are concerned but tell no-one. You don’t understand what is happening to you. You go to work. You are unable to focus on your job and have a fairly unproductive day.
The next day you feel worse. You go to work again. Your boss might ask you what is wrong (if you are lucky). You don’t want to be seen as weak so you tell them that you are fine. You are gunning for a promotion and can’t show any chinks in your armour. You carry on but can’t really concentrate on work. You start to feel worse. You go to the bathroom. You look in the mirror and notice a slight blue tinge to your lips. You hope people don’t notice and start to think of cover stories as to why your lips might be blue. None of them are all that believable.
You get home, and feel dizzy and confused. You can’t remember which key is the right one for your front door. You find it hard to breathe. You know that you should go and seek help but you can’t face telling anybody. They will look at you differently. Maybe they won’t want to be your friend. You think you will be seen as “weird’.
Your blood pressure has now dropped to dangerous levels. You are no longer able to reach for a phone.
If you had sought help, you would be quickly diagnosed as having Sepsis, caused by an infection as a result of your initial innocuous injury. You would have been admitted to hospital and treated with intravenous antibiotics. You did not do this and Sepsis has progressed to Septic Shock. Your liver and kidneys are failing, you have a stroke and then eventually your heart stops beating.
You are dead.
Ridiculous right? It is likely that on that first day at work you would tell your boss that you are feeling ill and need to see a doctor. You would speak up and seek help. Your boss would most likely realise that you are not acting like yourself and ask you if you are ok. You would tell them how you are feeling. They would encourage you to seek help. You would get help. You would likely still be alive.
We all feel able to ask for help when we feel unwell physically.
Generally, and there are still exceptions, there isn’t any Stigma associated with being physically ill. If there were, scenarios like the one above would be more common that society would be prepared to tolerate. Yet we still tolerate similar scenarios where mental illness is concerned.
What is stigma?
Stigma is defined as:
A mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person
A mark of disgrace. Would you feel disgraced if you were to disclose the fact that you had suffered from sepsis? Would this prevent you seeking help to treat it? Would you feel any shame to say that you had experienced it and come through it? No, you would not. Then why should someone suffering from a mental illness feel this disgrace?
There is another definition of stigma, derived from the word stigmata.
A mark branded on the skin
I carry my own marks on my skin which I have covered with tattoos. For 15 years, I hid the fact that I am bipolar. I am a business owner with supportive people around me. Yet every week when I attended therapy I put the word “Physio” in my diary. People in my business must have thought that I had the worst physiotherapist in the world, unable to fix my back during these weekly appointments. They also then heard me talk about successful bike rides of over 160km at the weekends. The real shame that I felt was when I realised how wrong this was.
This stigma and associated fear of being viewed differently (in a negative sense) by their employer means that people are not talking about a mental ill-health problem:
Only 11% of employees discussed a recent mental health problem with their line manager, and half of employees say they would not discuss mental health with their line manager. (1)
So it is clear that people with a mental ill-health issue are not always getting the help that they need from their employers.
Back to the question: Why must we smash the stigma?
There is both a clear moral and business case to do so.
The Moral Case
This is easy. It is simply the right thing to do. If we smash the stigma, then we save lives. We enable people to seek help earlier. We allow people to be more authentic in the workplace and society. There has been huge progress over the last few years in allowing people to be themselves in all parts of society. Our mental health is one area that lags behind.
The Business Case
Our society has evolved to the point where employees have to manage stress much more frequently then we are physiologically programmed to do. The ‘always on’ economy interferes with the ability of individuals to recover from this stress. We sleep less then we used to and, in a lot of cases, less than we need to recover from our days. We all have mental health and are on a continuum from struggling to thriving.
There are some particularly poignant statistics that are worth quoting here:
2030: depression will be the no.1 cause of disability and absences in the workplace (WHO) (2)
Annual Cost to UK employers of absenteeism due to mental ill-health – £8bn (3)
Annual Cost to UK employers of presenteeism – £17-26bn (3)
The average ROI on workplace interventions re mental wellbeing – 4.1 (3)
I would argue that investing in the mental wellbeing of all employees is one of the biggest drivers of performance gains that companies can implement in the next few years. However, the big barrier to improving the mental health of us all is the stigma associated with it. If we can’t talk about our mental health, then it is much harder to improve it (wherever you are on the continuum).
Role Models in Business
I will talk about how we can go about smashing the stigma in my next post. There is some fantastic work going on out there by individuals, businesses, charities, alliances and brave people simply telling their story. In the last few months, I have had the privilege of hearing a lot of people speak on this topic and the common theme that I have heard is that there are a lack of role models in business talking about their own mental health and supporting mental wellbeing initiatives. This is changing but there is much work to do.
Try searching the internet for “famous people with a mental illness” and then try “business leaders with a mental illness”. There are plenty of role models from the entertainment and sporting worlds which is great. However, not many of us are professional athletes or Hollywood actors. Most of us work for companies, firms, in the public sector etc.. There are a lack of role models here and, believe me, this is not because business executives do not experience mental illness. Quite the contrary. Nobody is completely immune.
We need more role models from business.
Conclusions – a case study
I recently gave a talk on mental health to the Royal Berkshire Fire & Rescue Service. The stats they shared with me are truly harrowing and tell their own story as to why we must smash the stigma. (4)
30% of firefighters had contemplated taking their own lives due to stress and poor mental health while working for the fire and rescue service
5% of firefighters had made an actual attempt to take their own life due to stress and poor mental health
61% of firefighters had experienced a mental health problem – such as depression, anxiety disorder, OCD, PTSD, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia – while working or volunteering in their current or previous role
40% of firefighters had been prescribed medication (such as antidepressants, sleeping tablets etc.) due to stress and poor mental health
82% of firefighters agreed or strongly agreed that there needs to be more emotional support made available to fire and rescue personnel
36% of firefighters said that someone would be treated differently (in a negative way) if they disclosed a mental health problem at their organisation
Clearly this is a population that experience a high degree of stress in their work but stigma is preventing about 36% of people that need help from potentially asking for it. These days almost everyone is experiencing stress in the workplace. How many people in your organisation are not getting the help that they need?
- Business in the Community; Mental Health at Work Report, 2017
- World Health Organisation; Depression, a global crisis, 2012
- Deloitte; Mental Health Review – the case for investment, 2017
- Mind’s research into emergency services 2016