Time to Talk About Mental Health

The first article in a new series discussing mental health in the workplace and featuring some of Student Life’s business partners

Dr Kate Blackford has a PhD in Quality of Working Life and international experience as a consultant in safety culture improvement.  Eighteen months ago Kate joined the Compliance team at ABP to lead on their Beyond Zero programme focussing on improving safety, health and well-being across the business.  Kate also sits on the Port Skills and Safety Management Committee. 

 mental health ipswich student life

I began my career in organisational psychology nearly 12 years ago working as a consultant focussing on safety at work.  I travelled the country and the world extensively helping organisations put in place processes and skills to enable them to positively develop their safety culture.  Over the past 8 years or so, the role of mental health and wellbeing has become increasingly apparent to me in enabling good safety performance, and good performance more widely.  My interest in this area grew and in 2010 I was accepted onto a PhD programme to study quality of working life, a topic closely related to both safety and mental health and wellbeing at work.  While workplace safety is a hot topic in every organisation, mental health and wellbeing is still something organisations tend to regard with a sense of dis-ease.  The intangibility of mental health and wellbeing is perhaps the reason for this and this discomfort with tackling such issues is reflected in wider society also. 

With physical harm and illness we can usually see the problem (or the symptoms of the problem) while with mental health it is much harder to actually pin down the problem.  In my view this is because mental ill health is often slow and quiet in its manifestation, it creeps up on us and the gradual emergence of it means that those around us may not notice our gentle decline.  Mental ill health is characterised by changes in behaviour and these can creep up on both the sufferer and those around them. In my experience the sufferer may well fail to realise that they need to get help because of this slow decline and are left wondering why they could cope last month, or last year but cannot cope now.  They ask themselves “what has changed?” and come up empty.  As a society we have yet to fully appreciate the way that mental ill health develops in a vast majority of cases and as such we leave sufferers and those around them feeling as though they are at fault and unable to ask for help as a result.  

In addition there are still taboos in society and business around talking about mental ill health.  We deceive ourselves that because we are sending out flyers and holding awareness sessions that we are dealing with it, but it goes so much deeper than this.  We have to really start the conversation and this needs to happen at all levels of society and organisations.  We need to understand that mental ill health is a sign that our lives are out of balance and then we need to know what to do and who to talk to to redress the balance.  While this may seem like a huge undertaking, there are also things we can do at a personal level to start to turn this around.  Look out for your friends – have you noticed any changes in their behaviour?  Typical things (but not exhaustive) to look out for are changes to appearance (the person who took care of themselves looking dishevelled), excessive drinking counter-balanced with high consumption of caffeine the next day.  Increasing moodiness or tearfulness and disinterest in activities a person used to enjoy are also possible signs of someone who is struggling.  

And what can we do if we notice these signs?  Gently let the person know that you are someone they can talk to.  It may seem like a simple thing, but talking is a great start.  If you are feeling frazzled yourself there are also some simple things you can do – get good sleep (without the aid of booze), pop a pad and pen by the side of your bed and jot down anything that is worrying you (this gets it out of your head and allows you to let it go until morning when you can look at it with a fresh perspective. Take some gentle exercise (being outside also helps) and set aside 5 minutes each day to jot down the things in your life you are grateful for (even if it is just that delicious chocolate bar you just ate!).  Take a few minutes each day to do something you enjoy and immerse yourself in it and most of all, be kind to yourself – we all struggle from time to time and trying to power on through will not work forever.