Mental Health at Work

Katie Harrower |


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By this point you’ve undoubtedly heard of American CEO Ben Congleton, whose inspirational response to employee Madalyn Parker supporting her decision to take two days off to focus on her mental health went viral a while back.

For those of you who haven’t, Madalyn sent her work team an email saying she was taking two days leave to focus on her mental health. The response she received from her CEO supported and commended her decision, saying ‘You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work’.

Madalyn herself deserves to be applauded for her email. Undoubtedly, it takes a great deal of strength and bravery to send an email as such. Let’s take a moment to ponder why.

Approaching colleagues for help

Approximately a quarter of all people in the U.K. will experience a mental health problem every year, according to mental health charity Mind. Other findings show that 77% of employees have experienced symptoms of poor mental health at some point in their lives.

Yet, for reasons to be explored, the same study also found that only 25% of employees approached someone at work for support. Indeed only 14% of those who took part in the study felt that nothing would stop them from approaching someone if they were concerned.

Madalyn exists in a minority group of people who feel able to be open about their mental health issues at work, and this perhaps explains why her CEO’s response went viral. It is clearly not standard practice for employers to react in this positive and commending way, and this caused a writer from the mirror to refer to Ben Congleton’s email response as ‘astonishing’. Responses on Twitter also reflected this shock factor; one woman replied with "Wow, I wish! I needed a medical mental health stay once. Upon my return, my boss told me not to let it happen again or my job would be gone.”

This isn’t uncommon – many employers frown upon mental health absences because they believe in the stigma surrounding mental health. Managers that take mental health as seriously as physical illnesses are few and far between, it seems, and this may be because a lot of them associate mental illness with unreliability – a big no-no in the work environment, of course.

                                 “Mentally unwell? You must be unreliable!”

A friend of mine experienced similar problems in her place of work. Signed off by her doctor for two weeks due to mental illness, her employer threatened her job because he ‘didn’t want to hire unreliable people’. She politely responded that she had never been off without reason, never been late and had in fact undertaken many tasks which were above her title and salary. She was one of the most reliable employees in the building.

So where did the ‘unreliability’ aspect come in? Certainly not from her in-work performance. It seems that the mention of mental illness alone is enough to trigger a voice inside some managers’ heads, saying ‘unreliable’ over and over.

Supporting the mental wellbeing of employees shouldn’t be going viral – it should be standardised

The fact that Congleton’s response has been so widespread this last week speaks volumes about leadership across the globe.

Good leaders are trusted by their employees and your company should be no different. It’s 2017, and this should be a standard of response instead of a one-off that we class as ‘inspirational’ and ‘astonishing’. Ben Congleton himself talks about this in his article ‘It’s 2017 and mental health is still an issue in the workplace’, in which he says ‘This should be business as usual. We have a lot of work to do.’

So what do we mean by ‘business as usual’? Responses like Congleton’s should be a standardised process within your company’s HR strategy. Perhaps one way to respond is to offer support to employees in this situation – ask them to help you understand what you as their employer can do to help them. Is it a phased return to work, allowing them the chance to adjust? Is it flexible working hours for the future? Whatever the case may be, employers should be presenting options, which places the employee at the helm of their decision.

Creating and maintaining professional standards is imperative in today’s working environment. Congleton’s response has raised awareness of a global leadership problem and allows us to dissect the values of our own companies as we continue to grow.

It’s great that Congleton responded the way he did and we can all learn valuable lessons about good leadership from his response - let’s make them lessons that are here to stay.

Did you find this article useful? Youmanage HR offers software to help you streamline your HR processes and ensure compliance within your company. We also write articles on HR, leadership, employee engagement, health & well-being and much more. Start a free trial of Youmanage, get in touch to ask questions, or check out our blog to help you to deliver HR best practice in your business.

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Katie is the Marketing Executive here at Youmanage. Within the wider team, she is responsible for managing all aspects of marketing communications, including content and digital strategy, social media, website traffic, prospective client experience and the overall satisfaction of existing Youmanage users.