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Mental Health at work

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Recently I helped to run a series of workshops to raise awareness of Mental Health at work. The response was overwhelming with over a third of the workforce turning up to workshops such as ‘Chimp Management’, resilience, learn about your kryptonite, creating empowering relationships plus yoga, Tai Chi and much more. The feedback we received included statements such as ‘inspirational’, ‘exciting’, ‘engaging’ and ‘life changing’. As a result of being part of this event, I am left in no doubt that mental health at work is a hot topic. I have found that the reward from investing in a few short learning opportunities has re-invigorated the workforce. People laughed, were open about life challenges and teams gathered together in support of those who expressed a need for help.

During my career in the Army, mental health was not a topic we openly discussed, we were taught to push our feelings down, to be courageous and fight on until the mission was complete. The success of a mission raised team morale, bonded us and re-enforced us for the next battle. However, I learnt over time that this attitude - while achieving short term success – ultimately it can have a long term impact and a mentally draining effect. We suppressed our fears and put on a brave face, leading to us ignoring our mental wellbeing, and sometimes suffering as a result. The Army is thankfully making some progress in this area and now actively deals with mental health issues and recognises serious outcomes such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I now realise that pushing a thought or emotion down and burying it without confronting it is like shoving a snake around under a carpet. It will just reappear in another place.

I found the transition from the Army to civilian life a difficult one, all structure and hierarchy was removed - all the parameters I based my decision making on disappeared. It took me some time to adjust. Working as a civilian in matrix organisations is very different. It is more chaotic, people often do not follow through on things they say they will do, the consequence of not meeting goals are softer than in the military and therefore often lead to little change in people’s behaviours. Conflict in the workplace is another factor that is often not dealt with in a timely or constructive way and conflict left to brew will fuel a fire and sooner or later it will explode causing widespread damage. People bring their subconscious issues to work – these issues move around under the surface and create all sorts of dynamics in teams. They can block team performance and hence the bottom line of businesses.

Whenever people come together for whatever reason in work, family events, sports activities and so on, the performance of individuals and teams in those environments is affected by their behaviour, which is directly impacted by their mental health. When we feel stressed and under pressure, we under-perform. If we just stop and breath for a short while, take some time out when we have been under great pressure to perform and address our mental state, and ‘listen’ to how we feel (and do something constructive about it) – so much more will be achieved.

There are a lot of publications available exploring how individuals can better manage their mental health and wellbeing and there are new concepts being discussed virtually every day. In terms of wellbeing and emotion regulation Emotional Agility is the new buzzword about town. This concept is all about making an extra effort to be mindful when we encounter self-limiting beliefs; how to break hooks that hold us back, how to stop and address limiting thoughts and start to take back some control on our thoughts and emotions. Much of this is not necessarily new, as coaches, psychotherapists and mental health workers have been doing this for some time, it simply offers a new way of looking at these issues. Susan Boyd and Christine Congleton wrote an article in Harvard Business Review in 2013 on the topic and Susan published her book ‘Emotional Agility’ on 7th Apr 2016 where she describes it as:

‘[Emotional agility is] a process that allows you to be in the moment, changing or maintaining your behaviours so that you can live in ways that align with your intentions and values. The process isn’t about ignoring difficult emotions and thoughts. It’s about holding those emotions and thoughts loosely, facing them courageously and compassionately, and then moving past them to make big things happen in your life’

Whatever your views on whether this is a new model or a rehash of a number of things that have been around for some time, Susan’s article drew a lot of attention and her book was written in response to demand. It shows that people are curious and the topic resonates with many readers, and anything that empowers people to actively manage their mental health is a positive thing.

Having been part of Mental Health Awareness Week at work and seen how raising awareness of the topic and equipping people with useful tools to manage their emotions and thoughts has had real impact on our workforce, I would recommend that companies and training organisations think long and hard about what they are doing to help their workforce in this area. It’s evident that mental health is an issue we can no longer afford to sweep under the rug.

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Image: Chinnapong/


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