May 15, 2019
Mental health awareness at work—where’s the next challenge?
By: Barbara Harvey

Thank goodness, the stigma around mental health is beginning to lift. In our 2018 study, 82 percent of people said it’s easier to talk about mental health today than it was just a few years ago. But amid the relief of more openness about common mental health disorders, are we doing enough to talk about and understand the more complex, more serious conditions?

Over the past few weeks I’ve read three extraordinary autobiographies and, though each story is unique, they have common themes that I believe can inform our workplace perspective.

Rose Cartwright’s book Pure is brutal. Rose has a form of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) called “Pure O.” It’s not a well-known condition but those who have it experience intrusive thoughts that take over the mind to the point where they block out everything else. In Rose’s case her thoughts were sexual in nature and she told no one. Reading it you just want the narrative to stop. You’re waiting for her to get the right help as on page after relentless page she recalls terrifying images and desperate isolation. She does, after 10 years, find the key to unlocking her condition. No miracle cure, but a life regained with the support of the right professionals and those who love her.

Jonny Benjamin’s book The Stranger on the Bridge recounts his experience with schizo-affective disorder, a condition where the symptoms of schizophrenia (psychosis, delusions, hallucinations) come together with the mood symptoms of bipolar disorder. Neil Laybourn was the "stranger on the bridge" of the book’s title. On a morning in January 2008, when Jonny felt he had no options left, it was Neil who stopped on his way to work and whose quiet, kind words offered Jonny a glimpse of a different ending. When you first hear their story, it sounds so simple: a young man in trouble, a rescuer who melts back into the crowd, an emotional reunion after many years and a deep, lasting friendship. It’s a fairy tale. Or maybe not. The book tells of the complexity of Jonny’s struggle with his mental health and with coming out as gay to his loving Jewish family and community. No miracle cure for Jonny either but together with Neil he campaigns tirelessly for better awareness, more openness and for reform to the mental health services that have let him down as often as they have helped him.

Let Me Be Frank is the autobiography of world heavyweight boxing champion Frank Bruno. His experience of bipolar disorder, of being sectioned (admitted to hospital without his personal consent) and of his treatment by some of the UK media makes tough reading. But he, too, has turned his challenges to good, setting up a foundation for others in the boxing community and using the fact that mental health can affect someone as strong and famous as he is to knock the stigma around mental health out of the ring.

For now, I will set aside my awe at these three individuals’ courage, willpower and strength, and focus on what I will take back into my role as the sponsor for our UK mental health program.

  • Work matters: Rose, Jonny and Frank all work and, like the 86 percent of workers in a 2016 studyi, they see work as important to and positive for their mental health and ability to take a full part in life. Yet unemployment and job losses among those with serious mental health conditions is high. How can we do more to address this while recognizing the individual needs such illnesses create?
  • Workplace mental health programmes must include support for more serious and chronic conditions too: Our research report, “It’s not 1 in 4, it’s all of us” shows that mental health challenges touch nine in 10 of us. In the report we recognize that mental health—like physical health—varies between people and over time, and that organizations must address the mental health of all their employees in a way that makes it about everyone. That means supporting those wanting to maintain good mental health and those who live—and work—with more serious mental health conditions. One element of our program that I’m really proud of is a monthly call, hosted by a psychotherapist. It is confidential for those who attend it, and offers a safe place for those in difficult situations to connect and get the support and guidance they need.
  • Support caregivers: Those who live with, care for and love those going through serious mental health conditions are more at risk than others of mental and physical health issues than others. Flexibility, understanding and knowing they are not alone can help carers manage and feel less alone.
  • Encourage good habits: The three books and the mental health webinars we’ve run at Accenture over the last five years mention the importance of mindfulness, physical exercise and good nutrition over and again. Our Chief Leadership and Human Resources Officer Ellyn Shook recently published 10 Habits to Keep the Brain Healthy. Simple habits that can help us all manage our mental health.

Lastly, and more personally, I see again and again how the kindness and patience of others—strangers and friends alike—can change outcomes. Someone who is really unwell may withdraw from their colleagues, their friends and even their families, and they can be difficult company, but small acts of friendship rarely go unnoticed and—in the case of Neil’s quiet question as to why Jonny was sitting on the bridge—can change lives.

iAdded Value: Mental Health as a Workplace Asset, Unum and Mental Health Foundation, 2016

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