Mental health must be top of mind

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According to a 2018 study by the Mental Health Foundation, in the past year 74% of people have felt so stressed they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope. And more than one in seven people experience mental health issues in the workplace. We should all be mindful of the various ways that work can contribute to, or exacerbate, feelings of stress, depression, anxiety and latent issues among project workers all year round.

In the 2019 APM Salary and Market Trends Survey, respondents were asked to describe their current mental health – and happily 69 per cent rated it as good or very good. But there is clearly a proportion of people who are struggling – and many more who, for one reason or another, are at risk of negative issues but do not self-identify as having poor mental health. For example, 81 per cent of respondents who said they had experienced stress in the past 12 months admitted that it was work-related – and 72 per cent of those who had been suffering from anxiety said it was related to their job.

So what could we be doing to improve mental health?

One tangible option is to undertake training in mental health first aid (MHFA – courses are run by a charity of the same name).

Paul Hay, Environmental, Health and Safety Training Manager at LendLease, presented his experiences of mental health in the workplace at an APM South East forum in May. “We started our mental health programme around five years ago,” he says. “Construction had – and still has – the highest suicide rate of any profession in the UK, and nobody talked about it as an issue. It’s a profession mostly occupied by men, and we all know about men not talking. I was blown away by the impact it had on me, and it changed the mindset I had towards the issue – my own personal wellbeing, that of my colleagues and friends.”

LendLease has put around 450 people through the two-day course in the past five years, and about a third of those are active mental health first aiders within the business.

“How can we prove what we’re doing is working?” Paul asks. “I can sense a culture change, in terms of the training take-up and the awareness sessions – we can’t put enough on. Just walking around the office, you hear ‘mental health’ in conversations.”

But it’s also important to spot how day-to-day project work is also taking a toll on mental health. “Project management burnout is realising that the warning signs are there and being able to take them seriously enough to take positive action,” says Michelle Symonds, a consultant at Parallel Project Training. “You might be struggling with insomnia, have lower than normal levels of patience – it’s also highly likely that you’ll be unable to relax and enjoy social events or holidays.”

One way of identifying the specific stressors that are affecting mental health is to keep a stress diary. “This will pinpoint those days when something happened that made you more stressed and help you narrow down the bigger issues,” she says. This can then shape conversations with team members, stakeholders and others around work stressors, and reveal the work triggers that are amplifying personal stress factors.

And as Lisa Hogben explained in the Autumn 2018 edition of Project, perhaps the most important step is to communicate. For business leaders generally, and project team leaders in particular, creating an environment that is openly and positively supportive of conversations about mental health is vital.

And as Paul points out, when it comes to male team members – men are much more likely to internalise stress and other mental health issues than women – additional reassurance that speaking up is a positive act might be needed. Male (or female) team members quickly becoming aggressive under stress might be a sign of a need for some mental health first aid.

“By accepting aggressive reactions as normal, we are inadvertently excluding men from the mental health awareness, education and support that they may need,” Lisa wrote. “We are extending gender-biased societal conditioning further into adulthood, and in so doing, may be dissuading other men from reacting differently or appreciating the need to learn how to.”

APM recognises the importance in driving discussions about mental health within the sector. As such, they are setting up a focus group – initially with corporate partners and then opening it up to project professionals. If you’re a corporate partner and interested in joining the focus group, please email: mentalhealth@apm.org.uk.

Brought to you by Project journal.

Image: ESB Professional/Shutterstock.com

Richard Young

Posted by Richard Young on 18th Jul 2019

About the Author

Richard Young is the consulting editor of Project
Project is the official journal of the Association for Project Management (APM).

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