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Making genuine changes and empowering conversations about mental health in the workplace

Rebecca Henson, Consultant | 5/10/2024

My name is Rebecca Henson and I am an insight consultant at Avalere Health. I conduct primary market research on behalf of key stakeholders at pharmaceutical companies. I am also a co-deputy of our mental health employee network group, which strives to advance the mental health support provided in the workplace.

I have lived experience with mental health conditions and endeavour to be open and honest about my mental health, while encouraging others to do the same.

What is the challenge regarding mental health in the workplace?

Mental health, as a term, still has negative connotations for some. We have certainly come a long way in raising awareness and accepting individuals who are struggling. We have also made strides in talking about the fact that, as humans, we are all likely to experience some mental health challenges from time to time.

So why is it that the term “mental health” still evokes mixed feelings in many individuals? Why can talking openly about mental health still feel like the scariest thing in the world? Why does it feel like talking about your own mental health could jeopardise your career or people’s perceptions of you?

This is because we still have a long way to go in breaking the stigma and empowering authentic conversations about the topic, without judgement.

What does mental illness feel like?

I have lived experience with anxiety and depression, but it took me a long time to feel comfortable talking openly about it. I experienced constant fear, uncomfortable physical symptoms, and intense low mood daily. For a long time, I was frustrated and couldn’t understand why I felt like I physically couldn’t do things that others could. This led me to a lot of experiences (both positive and negative) with the healthcare system, and a decade-long battle to learn to live with my mental illnesses.

I have since found ways to manage my mental health, create structure in my life, and accept that I might find certain things difficult. What I try to do now is impact the workplaces that I am in, get involved in mental health initiatives, and connect with like-minded individuals to make genuine positive changes.

How do we take action?

There are many reasons why it is important that a workplace takes an active role in discussing mental health. The first being that it creates a sense of inclusion for those struggling with their mental health. Additionally, the more that workplaces discuss mental health, the further forward we move as a society in being able to empower these types of open and honest conversations.

This has a detrimental effect on productivity, further highlighting the necessity for workplaces to take mental health seriously.

There are numerous interventions that workplaces can consider, which typically fall into two categories: procedural changes and emotional support.

Procedural changes

Examples of the changes we have been integrating at Avalere Health include communicating that sick days cover both physical and mental illness, requiring managers to carry out mental health training, and allowing flexible working if required. Flexible working patterns may need to be considered for periods of significant mental illness or when changing mental health medication, which can have a profound negative impact on individuals, due to side-effects and withdrawal symptoms.

It is also important for companies to keep their finger on the pulse of employee mental health and wellbeing, ensuring they explore any issues or opportunities specific to the organisation and tailor solutions accordingly (we have incorporated this into regular employee engagement surveys).

Emotional support

Examples that we have implemented at Avalere Health include having regular employee resource group meetings to brainstorm and implement changes, raising awareness of mental health throughout the year (alongside supporting mental health awareness days), and providing employees with access to mental health support, counselling, and advice, through medical schemes and employee assistance programmes. We also have numerous employees trained and available as mental health first aiders—approximately 33 in the UK, one in Greece, and 15 in the US, although we are hoping to increase our US first aiders to 40 this year.

Ultimately, making genuine changes in the workplace, with a purpose of improving mental health, means taking step in the right direction as a society, towards empowering authentic conversations about mental health.

 

This article was produced in collaboration with myGwork and Inclusive Companies.

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