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Mental health at work needs more than ‘tea and tissues’

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Prioritising mental and emotional health in the workplace is good for business, but few companies have formal strategies to deal with these challenges.

Professor Karen Milner and psychologist Judith Ancer believe it’s so important, they wrote a book about it.

Beyond Tea and Tissues: Protecting and Promoting Mental Health at Work looks at how to optimise employee well-being and manage distress, trauma, and mental illness in the workplace. They recently launched the book via an online webinar.

Milner, an associate professor of psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand, says she was motivated to write the book when she was consulting in a corporate environment a few years ago. “I bumped into a quite senior human resources manager who was very distressed. She had been talking to a colleague who had come to her for help – the colleague was extremely depressed and cried in her office. She described how she found it really difficult as she didn’t have the tools to help her, saying, ‘All I could offer was tea and tissues.’ She felt inadequate and unhappy that she couldn’t do more.”

Milner teamed up with Ancer, and they started writing the book before the pandemic, but the way the workplace has been overturned in the past year makes their book even more urgent.

Ancer, a clinical psychologist in private practice, says she was motivated to write the book because “my concern is that often clinical practitioners both in public service and private practice don’t always understand the interface with the workplace. We hope this book will help them navigate it. And there is a lack of understanding from the workplace too.

“Mental-health policies aren’t just a ‘nice to have’,” says Milner. “We make a strong business case that depression can be extremely costly to companies. Businesses can’t afford to lose skilled staff because of mental-health crises.

“Not only are the costs associated with poor mental health significant, but positive mental health, manifested as employee engagement and other positive mental-health states, has been found to play a key role in organisational success.”

Ancer says the area they tried to cover is vast, and while it uses a lot of statistics and data, it’s not only for academics or analysts but all people working with other people. She says in the South African workplace, mental-health conditions are particularly prominent as people battle with many social ills in their home lives.

The book looks at everything from loneliness, bereavement, loss, addiction, bullying and harassment, to dealing with difficult people who struggle to be part of a team or cause conflict with others. It also considers cultural issues when managing mental health at work, identifying and managing personality, mood, and anxiety disorders in the workplace, and early warning signs of mental-health difficulties. All this becomes even more prominent in the COVID-19 era.

“A recent study in California showed that anxiety most affected the mental health of those in the 18-25 age group, and those are the ages entering the workplace,” says Ancer.

The authors also look at the wider environment, and how personalities, management style, or systems can exacerbate mental-health problems. “We look at what organisations need to do not only to protect mental health, but promote mental health. The continuum doesn’t end when someone has a crisis and is then okay. We want to help people to thrive as engaged employees who get meaning from their jobs and are productive members of the team.”

Milner says it’s worrying how much stigma continues to surround mental health in the workplace, and it’s likely that the statistics are underreported as people hold back on revealing their challenges.

“They often hide it, or try to present a more cheerful face. They fear being seen as less competent,” she says. Organisational culture needs to allow people to be vulnerable and normalise talking about mental health while still respecting a person’s privacy and dignity.

Ancer says workplaces have a “moral imperative to treat mental-health challenges early and seriously”. Furthermore, organisational culture should respect downtime, leave, family time, and sick leave. If a person is expected to be available all the time, it undermines their well-being.

Milner says the past year has been a “mass experiment in the workplace”, and it has been tough for workplaces to replicate in-person connection at an online level. It’s important to re-establish rituals lost online, and to work to build connections. Also, it’s important for people to find ways of marking the end of the workday when they are working from home.

The book isn’t intended just for human resources managers, but all managers. “In my experience, managers can’t just shift mental health onto HR or outside the organisation,” Milner says. She says it will be useful for employees themselves, and although it includes theory and research, it has been “translated” so that everyone can find it accessible and helpful, including psychologists, laypeople, managers, and employees.

“We are in a time of change, and it’s important for everyone to tolerate imperfection, including companies and businesses,” says Ancer. Often, a mental-health crisis is as serious as a broken leg, and needs to be treated as seriously, Milner says. Organisations need to have a plan in place in case of a mental-health emergency, and understand that an employee might need to take time off to heal.

They hope the book will spark a new approach to mental well-being at work, saying, “This is a long road to travel, and there is a lot of work to be done.”

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