Mental Health: Don’t be afraid to ask ‘how are you feeling now’?
Wales Co-operative Centre HR Manager Angela Overment writes about the importance of being able to discuss mental health openly in the workplace and details her first experience of helping an employee with mental health issues.
Over the last few months we have seen the furore over “mental patient” Halloween costumes; National Stress Awareness Day (3rd November 2013), and the thought provoking Channel 4 documentary series “Bedlam”. In addition, we have all just experienced “Blue Monday” (the second Monday in January), which is often claimed to be the most depressing day of the year. It seems, therefore, that mental health issues have received a great deal of attention recently.
In addition, two Wales Co-operative Centre employees have recently been involved in the Time to Change Wales campaign to end the stigma associated with mental health issues. You can read about Mark and Catherine’s story here, and you can read Mark’s blog about the experience here.
It seemed appropriate, therefore, to write my first blog about mental health.
I remember my first encounter as a HR practitioner with a significant mental health issue. I was 25, and a member of staff, lets call him Mr X, had developed an unusually poor absence record over a period of a few months. His manager had commented informally about this to Mr X. Mr X came to see me unexpectedly one day, and mid way through our conversation informed me that immediately after our meeting he intended to end his own life.
Was I scared? Yes. Did I know what to say? Not really. But what I did know what that this person had shared something with me that must have been hard to talk about, and I could not pretend I hadn’t heard it. So I asked him why he felt this way. This resulted in a long conversation about several current personal difficulties as well as some historical issues. After listening to Mr X, I was able to suggest some sources of professional help, and made a few calls with him. I asked if his manager was aware of the circumstances, and he replied no. After a discussion, he gave me permission to explain to the manager that there were some issues with which Mr X might need some support. This helped to reassure Mr X that he would not immediately lose his job, and so was one less thing to feel anxious about.
Over the following months, Mr X and I stayed in regular contact and had frequent conversations about how things were developing, and his mental health. After a period of counselling and support from other mental health professionals, Mr X came back to see me. He was like a changed man – brighter, happier and optimistic about the future. He had come to thank me for my help. I didn’t think I had done anything out of the ordinary, but he explained that nobody had ever asked him why he felt the way he did before. Friends that he had spoken to had replied to his comments about suicide with platitudes such as “oh it can’t be that bad” or “don’t be silly, you can’t do that you’ve got kids” etc.
Just asking the question had opened the door to the possibility that there may have been another way out.
The point to this blog post?
Nobody ever has an issue with asking someone how they are feeling after learning that they have had a physical illness. If a colleague returns to work after having flu, you would not think twice about asking “how are you feeling now?”. Mental health issues are no different. Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone and ask the question – it may be literally be the difference between life and death.