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Mental Health Awareness Week - It’s Good To Talk

Today marks the start of Mental Health Awareness Week (14th – 20th May 2018), something I flagged up in the most recent Club newsletter as I’d just attended a networking lunch where the focus was on mental health issues in the workplace and beyond.

What Is Too Much Stress?

Run by the Mental Health Foundation, the focus of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is on stress, one of the major drivers behind the rise in mental ill health. Although we were originally hardwired for the stress response – that fight or flight thing – to act as a survival strategy protecting us from potential hazards, today, increasing numbers of us are getting into trouble when this response becomes a way of life, something that’s “always on,” that makes us feel like we’re literally being chased around by a wild beast day in, day out.

Sitting in a roomful of colleagues at this recent lunch (shout-out to the always productive and highly enjoyable, Senior Executives Forum hosted by Cornwall College Business!) I couldn’t help but marvel at how far we’ve come since the early days of my career working in business development in logistics in London. I couldn’t imagine my bosses from that time engaging with the issue of mental health with such ease. It really brought home how much things have changed, how much more complicated the environment we operate in has become and of course, how far we still have to go.

Reducing the Stigma of Mental Ill Health

Our lunchtime speaker, Alison Brown from Healthy Cornwall, focused on how important it was to embed mental health promotion in our business culture and make our approach to wellbeing so much more than a ‘tick-box’ exercise. In promoting awareness and understanding around mental health and wellbeing, and through having robust policies in place to support staff, we can all play our part in helping reduce the stigma of mental ill health. That this makes sound business sense, improving productivity and performance should be no surprise.

What was particularly interesting to me though was how, maybe as recently as a decade ago, such a gathering would have gone no further than a roundtable discussion on best practice for policy implementation. Yet last week everyone around my table, which included senior figures from major employers in the area, was happy to relate to the issue personally. We shared stories about our own experiences of stress and pressure in the workplace and also of managing health promotion initiatives in our businesses. This made for some illuminating conversation that ensured that the message Alison was driving, of how every employer should invest in staff mental health, would be so much more likely to be adopted effectively.

How We Say Things Matters

One of the themes that emerged in our discussions was about how important it is to be thoughtful about the language we use when talking about mental health. Getting this right matters as it can lead us to better outcomes for ourselves and the people we manage. For example:

How often when we talk about mental health do we actually mean mental ill health?

One of the senior execs at our table recounted an instance where a health promotion initiative delivered a better outcome when it was renamed a “wellbeing promotion policy” than when it was a “stress management policy.” The latter had seen staff sign off with stress and not engage with the workplace issues that had been causing their problems in the first place.

The Difference Between Stress and Pressure

We should also take care when using the words ‘stress’ and ‘pressure’ interchangeably as they are in fact two quite different things. Our roundtable discussion prompted me to look into this distinction:

A small amount of pressure can motivate and increase productivity – i.e. I put pressure on myself to get this post out for the start of Mental Health Awareness Week.

Stress involves chasing too many demands with too few resources to meet them. It’s when you don’t have enough time, knowledge or energy and end up feeling overloaded and overwhelmed. Pressure is a much more singular thing, it’s when you realise that a certain outcome depends on your performance.

World-renowned psychologist Hendrie Weisinger in his book, “Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most,” suggests asking yourself this question any time you feel the “heat:”

“Am I feeling overwhelmed by the demands upon me, or do I feel I have to produce a specific result?”

Taking this step back and literally checking in with ourselves can be a useful tool in helping us with our own understanding of situations and diffusing any potential escalation.

Building Communities of Empathy

Today, a long way from those early heady days at the start of my career when mental health was not something that was discussed, we’re thankfully far more open to admitting our difficulties. For those of us who work largely on our own, as freelancers or sole traders, we may not have the safety net of well-documented policies and protocols but we do have the ability to create our own support networks. As the Samphire tribe grows and flourishes it’s good to see how individual members are collaborating and building their own communities within our network.

So, in an annual calendar that is itself overwhelmed by themed Weeks – this is one that should matter to all of us. Let’s make talking about mental health the starting point for creating a kinder environment from which we’ll all benefit.