Watch out for your mental health in a toxic workplace – Jayne Dowle

AT my daughter’s secondary school, there’s a special place called Cornerstone. Away from the hurly-burly of the classrooms and the clamour of the dinner hall, it’s a place where anxious youngsters can go to sit quietly and take a break.
The Duke of Cambridge has spoken about mental health.The Duke of Cambridge has spoken about mental health.
The Duke of Cambridge has spoken about mental health.

Apparently, there are members of staff present who will listen to your problems, and, as Lizzie informs me, “give you toast and hot chocolate until you calm down”.

If only every workplace had a Cornerstone. It’s a long time since I worked in an office, but I did teach in an university for a decade. If you’re not feeling strong but have no choice except to soldier on at your post for eight hours or more, it’s intolerable.

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The only place to hide was the loo. Eventually, the increasing demands of the job played a significant part in my resignation, followed by a serious reassessment of my life choices.

There’s no need to go into too much detail, but the key point is that it never crossed my mind, at the time, that my mental health was being compromised. I just thought I was fed up with work, plus other issues happening in my life at the time were contributing to my general unhappiness.

When I look back, I recognise that many of the things I was feeling – isolation from colleagues, a recurrent sense of paranoia, sudden outbursts of anger and an overwhelming desire to run away as soon as the clock struck home time – were actually quite detrimental to my health. No-one noticed by the way.

Therefore, I’m glad to see that the British Safety Council is bringing its influence to bear on Mental Health Awareness Week, which starts today. The organisation, whose mantra is that no-one should be injured or made ill through their job, is urging employers to make changes in the workplace to address mental well-being.

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It has launched three videos based on well-being techniques and exercises for staff. However, I fear that there is some way to go before mental health is taken seriously in every office, factory, organisation and company in the land. Without even trying, I can think of at least half a dozen friends and relations who are suffering in silence.

We hear so much about mental health these days. It’s become a watchword for celebrity campaigners and even the young royals, in particular the Dukes of Cambridge and Sussex and their respective wives, have taken the cause to heart and regularly speak up in public about their own emotional issues.

However, there remains a huge disconnect between headline-grabbing campaigns and the private suffering of individuals, both in the workplace and the wider world.

Almost two-thirds of 2,000 people surveyed by the Mental Health Foundation said they had experienced a mental health problem.

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Most notable of all are the differences associated with household income and economic activity. Almost three out of every four people living in the lowest household income bracket report experience of a mental health problem, compared with six in 10 of those in the highest-income category.

What’s more, a staggering 85 per cent of people out of work have experienced a problem such as depression or chronic anxiety compared with two-thirds of people in work.

This may be the case, but it doesn’t make it easier for those who are struggling to hold it together and hold down a job. I don’t have a magic solution, except a Cornerstone in every company.

Clearly, the Government needs to free up much more thinking space itself (and funding) to address the situation. NHS mental health services are buckling under demand; the last thing a person in distress – who may have taken years to admit their difficulties to themselves – needs to hear from their GP is that it’s a six-month wait to see a counsellor or therapist.

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However, I do applaud the British Safety Council’s proactive stance. While there are stand-out companies which take their responsibilities towards staff well-being seriously – I’m thinking here of certain tech firms which allow employees to take days off for moving house and have in-office therapists – there are plenty more who ride roughshod over the prevailing trend of self-awareness.

I’d also say that, whilst a big organisation or public sector employer can shout proudly about its “healthy workplace” culture, I’ve heard of plenty of instances of this positivity not filtering down through the ranks.

Bullying from managers, overloading staff with impossible demands and constantly altering working practices are just three aspects of negative workplace culture which can contribute to poor individual mental health.

We wouldn’t tolerate a toxic work environment which had been proven to cause cancer or any other life-threatening disease, so why should mental health have different rules? This Monday morning, think about that.