It’s mental health week which this year runs from Sunday 5th to Saturday 11th October. World Mental Health Day is marked every year on the same date: October 10th. The primary purpose of these initiatives is to raise community awareness about mental health issues. According to the Mental Health Foundation of Australia the aim is to “activate, educate and engage Victorians about mental health.”
This is a topic especially close to my heart and one I believe needs to be far better understood, especially in business. All too often I observe people in the workplace battling mental illness with neither the level of awareness nor support needed to get them through. It’s undeniably also a challenging issue for many managers who often struggle to differentiate between those who simply have a poor attitude or are skiving off, versus those who are mentally unwell and need help.
The recent deaths from suicide of TV personality Charlotte Dawson and actor Robin Williams drew much needed attention to the issue. Unfortunately however as time passes so too does focus on what is a growing problem in Australia and around the world. According to Beyond Blue one in five Australians experience a mental illness each year. In any one-year around 1 million Australian adults have depression, and over 2 million have anxiety. At any one time approximately 20% of working Australians are mentally unwell.
Unfortunately many people leaders are poorly equipped to understand let alone deal with the issue. While some may argue it’s not their concern, they are wise to contemplate the impacts of mental health on work performance and productivity. The extent to which people are able to focus, collaborate, invest energy and make sound decisions are impacted by their mental wellbeing. Poor performance, morale and engagement, high rates of absenteeism and lost productivity are common and costly consequences of mental illness for many businesses.
Employers can make a positive difference in three key ways. Protect, Educate and Support. Protect the people on your team from mental and physical harm. Understand the psychological injury that can be caused by our work life experience. Treat people with respect and decency and expect others to do the same. Educate leaders and staff about how to recognise mental illness and where help is available if they or someone they know needs it. Support people to manage the impacts of mental illness and access the help they need.
Many years ago I was asked to work with a CEO to address the serious under performance of the Director of Sales for the Asia Pacific region. Responsible for driving growth and key account management, to say this Executive had switched off was an understatement. The first time I met him he sat slumped in his chair and hardly bothered to look at me throughout the discussion. It was plain to see he hardly had the energy to talk to me let alone drive outcomes in his role.
Following the meeting I asked the CEO to describe what his Executive had been like previously and what he said was astonishing. Only six months prior this guy had been one of the highest performing in the group. He was focused, diligent and most of all driven to succeed. When I asked the CEO what happened his response astounded me “I have absolutely no idea … he just seemed to stop wanting to perform”. When I enquired as to whether he had asked the Executive in question what the issue was, I was amazed to hear he hadn’t. This scenario is unfortunately common.
I believe it’s a matter of social responsibility that we each do our part to support the members of our communities who are in need. Jeff Kennett, CEO of Beyond Blue, says that we all need to look for signs in the people around us. “In many cases, it’s a change of eating habits, it’s a change in sleeping habits, you might be withdrawing from people around you, you might be seeking your own company, losing your own self-confidence,” he says.
Common signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety we can look for include:
- finding it difficult to concentrate on tasks
- turning up to work late
- feeling tired and fatigued
- being unusually tearful or emotional
- getting angry easily or frustrated with tasks or people
- finding it difficult to meet reasonable deadlines
- finding it hard to accept constructive and well-delivered feedback
- having difficulty managing multiple tasks or demands
- drinking alcohol to cope
- having loss of confidence and negative thought patterns
- appearing restless, tense and on edge
- avoiding certain workplace activities such as staff meetings
- becoming overwhelmed or upset easily
- finding it hard to make decisions
- referring to being constantly worried and appearing apprehensive.
If you’re concerned about someone, ask them if they are OK. Don’t be afraid to initiate conversation and work to understand their situation. Encourage them to seek help and give them information about where they may be able to find it.
Keep an eye out for my articles on mental health in the workplace coming up in The Weekend Australian and Smart Company.