Dealing with mental strains in workplace

It might feel daunting or even impossible, but seeking mental health support in the workplace can bring a lot of relief, writes Liz Connor.
Dealing with mental strains in workplace

FEELING THE STRAIN: 22% of workers in Ireland experience stress at work “always” or “most of the time”, an EU-wide study found. Picture posed by model

THERE’S no two ways about it — when it comes to stress, modern Irish workers are facing an epidemic.

A 2016 study by the ESRI found stress, anxiety and depression were the second highest causes of work-related illness in Ireland. They are also associated with the longest absences from work.

A European-wide survey on working conditions conducted by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work found that 22% of workers in Ireland experienced stress at work “always” or “most of the time”.

The proportion that always experienced stress was the third highest in the EU15 and 10th highest among the 34 countries surveyed.

Getting help, and not feeling ashamed in doing so, needs to be top of the agenda — as with the right support, many people can balance their health with the demands of a job.

But opening up about mental health struggles can feel very difficult, especially when it comes to having that conversation with your employer.

Taking that step, however, can actually bring a lot of relief, highlights Brendan Street, head of emotional wellbeing at healthcare provider Nuffield Health (nuffieldhealth.com), and set you on the right path towards getting the support you need.

Plus, there are laws to protect you from being discriminated against because of your health.

Here, Street discusses how best to ask for emotional support in the workplace...

Understand where you are

“Before you talk to anyone, it’s a good idea to really understand where you are with your mental health and how it’s affecting you personally and professionally,” says Street.

Seeking advice from your GP or a trained counsellor or cognitive behavioural therapist can help to identify what’s really going on, possible triggers, and how to best manage your mental wellbeing.

“Knowing this information will enable you to confidently explain how you’re feeling to your employer and why you think your condition has been exacerbated,” Street adds.

It might also be helpful to get a note from your doctor or other health professional, to explain what mental health problems you have, and what adjustments might help you better manage your working day.

Plan for progress

Before you speak to your boss, think about what you want to get out of the conversation.

“It might be you find the hustle and bustle of commuting during rush hour has a negative impact on your stress levels, so working from home or having flexible start and finish times might really help,” says Street.

“If you feel out of your depth or unsupported in your role, requesting a mentor at work or more regular catch-ups with your line manager might be what you need to feel happier and more in control.”

It could even be as simple as requesting longer periods of absence than the official policy states, to recover properly from emotional ill health.

Often, just knowing you have the support and flexibility to manage your condition can go some way to relieving the mental burden.

Decide who to speak to

“There are no set rules for who to speak to about your mental health at work, and it all depends on the relationships you have,” believes Street.

He says that if you’re not close to your boss, it might be better to speak to a human resources (HR) representative first: “As well as having an impartial ear, they’re also likely to have had more formal training or previous experience to assist with such sensitive issues.”

If you work for a small business with no HR department, Street believes that it’s best to speak to a senior person who you feel knows you best, or who has the authority to take positive action quickly.

Explain your situation

Opening up the conversation is always the difficult part, but don’t worry, you won’t be expected to provide your full medical history.

“It is reasonable for your employer to ask some questions about your situation,” says Street, who assures that you only need to reveal as much as you’re comfortable with.

“Frame the conversation as an opportunity, explaining you want to be able to perform to the best of your ability.

“Have specific examples to hand of things you find difficult at work and how this has impacted your performance or productivity.”

Street suggests picking a day when you’re feeling able to express yourself with clarity. “Make sure to talk about this when not you’re feeling at your most emotionally vulnerable, or at the end of a particularly difficult day.

“You’ll be able to explain yourself more clearly and it’s less likely that stress will take over, making it harder to get your point across,” he adds.

Know your rights

Times are changing and, thankfully, most workplaces now have formal mental health policies in place.

“Legislation is on your side,” says Street, “giving anyone experiencing a long-term mental health issue protection under the Equality Act 2010.

This means that all employers must make reasonable adjustments to work practices and provide other aids and adaptations, for those in need.”

Beyond statutory health and safety duties, employers also have a general obligation to take reasonable care for the wellbeing of employees in the workplace, including their mental wellbeing.

The Health and Safety Authority in Ireland last year launched a website and a new information campaign aimed at raising awareness of the damaging effects of work-related stress.

In conjunction with the State Claims Agency, it has developed the ‘Work Positive’ online tool which helps employers to implement a structured and collaborative approach to managing work-related stress.

See https://www.workpositive.ie/ for more.

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