That was a key message from a “Mental Health in the Workplace” workshop which was held in Letterkenny last week as part of the Connect Mental Health programme of mental health awareness events in Donegal.
Higher productivity, lower absenteeism, and greater staff retention are just three of the benefits employers create for themselves when they implement measures that support mental health in the workplace, the 45 workshop participants from a range of companies, agencies, and community organisations heard.
“We know that one in four of us will experience a mental health problem across our lives, and the World Health Organisation says that by 2020 depression will probably be the second highest disability in the world,” said Kara McGann of the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (Ibec), a featured speaker at the workshop, which was supported by Donegal Local Development Company. As a result, she said, “We need to de-stigmatise and normalise the whole area of mental health. You don’t have to become an expert or know diagnoses. It just means that when someone is going through a period of mental health difficulties we’re able to support them at that time.”
An increase over the past five to six years in the number of mental health-related questions and concerns being raised among Ibec’s 7,500 members led the organisation to develop “Mental Health and Wellbeing: A Line Manager’s Guide”, which is available to download on the Ibec website. The guide includes tips for creating a positive mental health environment in the workplace as well as a template for developing a mental health policy.
Mental health challenges currently faced by Donegal employees include those caused by the stress of living with high debts and the threat of home repossession, Noreen Doogan of the Donegal Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS) told the workshop. “We had one person in this week who didn’t even know their house is in repossession because their spouse is dealing with it,” she said. “Which is why I think it’s so important in work environments that we’re there to listen when people are under pressure and that we’re able to be a signpost to support services when needed. Because I can tell you, it’s definitely out there and impacting big time on mental health, but they may not be talking to anybody, even within their own family or their own marriage.”
NUI Maynooth researcher Stuart Stamp, a featured speaker at the workshop, said the disproportionate burden which Irish law has historically placed on debtors is a source of the terrible stress that people experience when they fall behind in repayments to creditors. “You may have heard this phrase ‘debt forgiveness’,” he said. “What does that imply? That the creditor is the wronged party and the debtor is the wrong party. Many of us prefer the term ‘debt restructuring’, a shared term which includes both the creditor who lent the money and the debtor who borrowed the money. Let’s not assign blame to somebody who borrowed the money in good faith.”
Mental health-promoting resources available to employers include a six-step mental health training and awareness programme offered by See Change, the National Mental Health Stigma Reducing Partnership, details of which are available on the organisation’s website at seechange.ie. “The programme helps Irish employers to develop an open mental health culture and play their role in challenging stigma,” said Hazel Whelan of See Change, a featured speaker at the workshop.
Displaying posters from the HSE’s “#LittleThings” campaign (available online at yourmentalhealth.ie) which promote the importance of positive mental health behaviours such as getting enough sleep and connecting with friends is another option. “There are visible ways that you can create a culture where people feel mental health is recognised and possible to talk about, whether it’s having information on the noticeboard about support services or participating in the Little Things campaign,” said Anne Sheridan, HSE Resource Officer for Suicide Prevention, a featured speaker at the workshop. “Once you do that, it’s about being ready for people coming forward and maybe talking about their difficulties.”
The workshop was moderated by Breifne Earley, a young Leitrim man whose struggles in the workplace brought him to the brink of suicide before he went on to become a champion round-the-world cyclist. “All of my issues with mental health stemmed from a really negative work environment where I had approached members of the managerial team for help and support that never came,” he said. “It went so far that it became unrecoverable, and ended up with me having to leave a job that I was securely employed in with no payoff, no nothing, or else risk taking my own life. So I think it’s very important in workplaces, because we spend so much time there, that as managers and staff we feel respected, valued, and that our input is at least considered before it’s dismissed.”