The time to focus on mental health at the workplace is now — an open letter to bosses everywhere
All we’re saying is that we’d love to work in a way that prioritises results and our well-being equally.
Dear bosses everywhere,
We are the young workforce that looks up to you for counsel and appraisal. For many of us, this is our first job. We need your help to transition into the world of work.
We have heard so much about the effects of stress and anxiety on health, yet our ambition and dreams are boundless. We are less cynical and more trusting at this age. We look up to you and hope that you will look after us as we build our career arcs in your footsteps.
We are aware that while issues related to mental health have started entering workplace conversations, there is still a lot of stigma attached to them. According to the World Health Organization, mental, neurological and substance use disorders account for 13 percent of total global disease burden in terms of DALYs (disability-adjusted life years).
It seems strange to think of time lost due to illness, of any kind, when we are brimming with ideas and energy. But we know that stress, anxiety disorders and the many chronic diseases linked to them are waiting, ready to pounce on us, unless you decide to help: we know that one in five people will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime and 5 percent of the world suffers from severe depression. Importantly, we are aware that these are not “first world” issues, and that 80 percent of mental health morbidity is found in low to middle-income countries like ours.
Please don’t mistake us: we aren't whining. We’re happy to take on challenges, to think outside the box, to bring our A-game in every presentation and project. All we’re saying is that we’d love to work in a way that prioritises results and our well-being equally.
There are international organizations that have cracked the problem. Humbly, we have collated some of their suggestions:
From the World Federation for Mental Health, we draw three suggestion:
1. To create safe spaces to discuss any issues that get in our way as we try to give our 110% to work all day, every day.
2. To encourage open conversations: we want to be able to ask you for help and tell you when we are feeling overwhelmed. We want to run ideas by you that may be bonkers or brilliant - you would be a good judge of which, given your extensive experience and wisdom.
3. We’d love an atmosphere of hope in the office. We are all quite ambitious, but we understand that collaboration is the best way to get the job done. What we’d like from you is a little bit of freedom to be creative. To take pride in our work.
From Mental Health First Aid International, we’d like to draw on their mental first-aid plan:
1. Approach, assess, assist: We want to tell when we are overwhelmed or stressed or unhappy, and need your guidance. Please help us by asking from time to time.
2. Listen non-judgementally: We care about your opinion of us - more deeply than we let on. Please listen to us. Try not to shut us down, even if some of our ideas seem quite “out there”. We promise not to waste your time. Instead, if we are confident of your support, we’ll put our best foot forward every day.
3. Give support and information: Information trickles down quite slowly to our level. A little bit of heads-up - on a new project, an internal job opening, a new policy - will reduce our stress and prepare us to embrace the change and take the whole team forward with greater gusto.
4. Encourage appropriate professional help: Sometimes we need more support than the organisation can give. After months of observing us, you can tell when we are falling behind, feeling low. Please encourage us to get the help you think we might need. We may be sensitive, and at breaking point, so please try to tell us gently. We are young and resilient. We promise to try and get better, and get back in the saddle, in no time.
5. Encourage other support: If you see us floundering, please encourage us to talk to our friends, our colleagues (they’re probably in the same boat as we are, and understand our concerns), our families.
Mental health issues are often seen as a sign of weakness or as transient phases an employee goes through. But this is not the case. Persistent stress builds up the hormone cortisol on the body and causes widespread inflammation and a host of serious health issues. Depression is a clinical condition that is caused by misfiring neurons, and stressful situations can spark onset.
We do not expect you, our bosses and super-bosses, to be mental health experts; that is the job of specialists. But you may be able to influence the insurance plans the company chooses: one that includes mental health would go a long way to assist us.
There are many ways you can make the workplace a friendly and accepting environment.
Have an open and constructive conversation with us – we love talking to you, and trying to impress you. While this sounds simple, it includes some specifics. Maintaining a healthy interactive platform with your team first begins with endorsing a culture that is mindful of the health of its members. This includes putting mental health issues out in the open by holding meetings or presentations.
Acknowledging that work can be stressful, but that stress can be managed by discussing fears and apprehensions makes managers feel more approachable. Setting up a sympathetic platform paves the way for more honest relationships and make more stern conversations easier to handle. Knowing a manager is on your side makes criticism feel more constructive. Diffusing the stigma of mental health within a team is of utmost importance and you as a boss have the power to do that.
Many firms in Canada, which has emerged as a leader in workplace practices in the recent past, have piloted a programme called “Not Myself Today”. It is based on acknowledging depressive bouts, anxiety and other mental health issues and structuring work around them.
Another thing we look for is inclusion. This does not mean we want to have a say in upper management decisions or that we want excessive, undue praise. Mental health issues can make people feel isolated and not in-charge of their career and well-being. By giving us a little bit of creative autonomy and listening to us, you give us a sense of control and achievement that only you can give.
Maintaining work-life balance is also crucial. While there are sometimes demanding work situations that require longer hours, flexibility in reaching these goals helps alleviate the rigours and stress of the process. This could involve allowing employees to sometimes work from home and conducting team-building exercises.
These are not sunk costs. When you invest some of your time and resources in our well-being, we feel more driven, more ambitious towards work goals. We can accomplish more when we feel appreciated.
Finally, some of us may need medication and support to be at the top of our mental health. Research has shown that up to 80% of people show improvement within four to six weeks of beginning medication, psychotherapy, support groups or a combination of these therapies. This translates to higher productivity and better work outcomes as well.
The aim of this letter is to lift the dark clouds surrounding mental health. On the one hand, increased attention to it is a welcome development. On the other, mental health issues in the workplace have attained a heavy, inscrutable label. But really, an open and accepting approach is what we ask. In return, you will have our gratitude, our loyalty, our best ideas and some of the best work of our lives.
The emerging workforce
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The report found that mental health conditions, besides affecting the quality of life, also had ‘enormous’ economic consequences with losses in productivity significantly outstripping the direct costs of care