It’s Mental Health Awareness Week – a national campaign to help get shot of the ongoing stigma surrounding the topic and to increase awareness about mental illness.

Some of you may have been diagnosed with an illness and some of you may be suffering in silence. A high proportion of you think it’s a distant problem and not one that impacts you; but what if you’re wrong? It may be staring you in the face at work and closer than you think.

Work-related stress is very common due to excessive pressures and demands placed on people in the workplace. This can impact one’s mental wellbeing as mental health is all about how we think, feel and behave. Do your employers do enough to fulfil their duty of care? Duty of care should be much more than just fulfilling legal obligations. Or if you’re like me, a contractor, what support is available? These are some topics we will explore further in this article.

Here are some statistics from the National Centre of Social Research to help set the scene:

A survey conducted by the National Centre of Social Research asked 5,000 adults in the UK about their experience of mental health. The survey found that:

  • 26% had been diagnosed with a mental illness
  • 18% of adults reported having experienced a mental illness but not having been formally diagnosed
  • Women were more likely to be diagnosed with a common mental health disorder – 31% of women in comparison to 17% of men
  • The most common diagnosis was depression, with 19% saying they had been diagnosed with this condition

Almost 75% of the UK population is employed according to the Office for National Statistics. When you overlay this with the research on mental illness conducted by the National Centre of Social Research and several other published findings, it leaves no doubt that mental illness exists in the workplace. There are high levels of work-related stress cases reported to the NHS every year; this mustn’t be overlooked.

Learning to recognise the physical effects of stress and doing something about it can help prevent you becoming seriously ill. The signs of stress are usually noticeable, but do employers do enough to recognise and address these? Duty of care is both a legal and moral obligation; and it also makes good business sense. Having a happy and healthy workforce is vital to the success of any business.

Having worked in several organisations, it is promising to see that many of them have established employee wellbeing programmes. These programmes ensure that specialist support is available for employees suffering with mental health issues and that wellbeing and healthy lifestyles are promoted in the workplace. This is a really positive move forward. One thing I have noticed is the limited understanding of mental health at a line-management level; they are not trained to recognise the early warning signals or how to appropriately support their staff. Improving this could have a significantly positive impact on employee wellbeing.

What if you’re a contractor like me and only work in organisations for short periods of time; are you familiar with the company’s mental health policies and do you feel supported? As mentioned earlier, duty of care is not just a legal obligation; therefore it is just as important for employers to take care of their contractors.

Personally, I have always felt very ‘part of the team’ with the organisations I’ve worked with. I am invited to participate in internal initiatives; for instance, my client’s team recently asked me to make a personal pledge linked to a healthier lifestyle as part of a wider internal initiative. I chose to stop taking the lift and walk up the stairs more often!

For organisations that promote inclusion for contractors, the support available is more accessible. However, working as a contractor can feel quite isolating at times unless you have a team of people working with you. Whilst the feeling of being part of a wider team or organisation is lessened as a contractor, I have found that my network has grown stronger. Gone are the days where everyone is seen as a competitor. The power of networking and collaboration is stronger than ever. Use your network to support you in times of distress.

Work-life balance will always fluctuate week-on-week depending on demands, but it’s important to recognise when an overpowering work life becomes the ‘norm’ and to take action. Talk to people around you about the effects it’s having on your health and seek help if you can no longer control the situation or your feelings.

It is hoped that campaigns such as Mental Health Awareness Week will lead to a cultural shift that promotes the understanding of mental illnesses and reduces prejudice.

If you want to seek help for work-related anxiety or stress, or if you are worried about your mental health or that of a colleague, many workplaces offer counselling services.

Alternatively, the NHS offer IAPT (“Improving Access to Pyschological Therapies”) across the country, and you can find services near you, or speak to your GP.

If you want to talk to someone about issues you may be having, you can contact the Samaritans by phone or email. Or why not consider volunteering.

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