Homo sapiens began colonising planet Earth around 315,000 years ago. Given that the first primitive organisms began to evolve 3.5 billion years ago, we have proven to be an incredibly creative, adaptable, tenacious and highly successful species in the relative blink of an eye. Much can be done to improve equality across a range of areas but in general the incredible advances that we have made, particularly in medicine and science, leave humankind with support, protection and comforts that our ancestors could not possibly imagine.
So against this backdrop of success, how is it that headlines scream our unhappiness, particularly in the Western world? The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that one in four people will develop mental or behavioural disorders at some stage in life. WHO also suggest that nearly 6 per cent of men and 10 per cent of women will experience a depressive episode in any year. Perhaps most alarmingly, our children seem to be having a particularly tough experience of life in the modern world.
From a narrower perspective, Millstream has seen the number of claims resulting from mental ill health increase three-fold in four years with the average cost of each doubling.
An umbrella term, “mental health” covers a vast spectrum including such diverse conditions as anxiety, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, dementia, substance abuse and reduced cognitive ability to name just a few. There is therefore no panacea or simple answers. Cause, effect and the possible solutions are often interlinked and vary according to the individual and her/his unique circumstances. Some factors (e.g. real insecurity and genuine threat) have challenged us for thousands of years. Others (such as social media, faster paced communications and extended life expectancy) are modern developments that arguably compound existing factors &/or add new ones depending upon your point of view.
One constant through the ages is our sense of community or, perhaps, the loss of it. Humans are social creatures. We evolved through the collaboration, mutual support and sense of identity that tribal structures provided. Life inevitably presents challenges, stresses and traumas. These communities provided personal contact, shared identity & learning, comfort and care when they were needed most.
Aside from purely physical, medical or genetic factors, it is recognised that loss of status, sustained or severe stress and trauma, instability of environment and social isolation or loneliness can all cause or contribute to mental health problems. Lifestyle factors such as poor diet, excessive drinking or other substance abuse and lack of sleep or physical exercise often follow and compound problems, potentially causing a vicious cycle.
Modern working life for many is represented by longer hours, reduced influence and job insecurity. As organisations become ever-larger, they can struggle to engage with individuals and their motivations and values impacting personal commitment. It is not unusual for many of us to spend more of our waking time with colleagues than our friends and family.
For those working overseas with NGOs and charities, specific challenges are added to this mix; challenging goals in difficult environments, the potential for seriously traumatic events or experiences and lengthy periods away from loved ones in unfamiliar cultures can all serve to increase the risk of mental ill-health. For those inclined to passionately own their goals and drive for achievement, “failure” can be an exacerbating factor.
So, are we doing enough to create communities at work that can serve the individual as others have done in the past?
“Mental health awareness” days and training are becoming commonplace in many organisations which is a great step forward. Line managers and direct colleagues are usually best placed to spot tell-tale signs at an early stage but are often poorly equipped to do so. Even where concerns are identified, managers can feel that it is outside their experience to raise or address them.
This safety net is vital as employees are often reluctant to voice their feelings for a variety of reasons. Creating a climate in which they are sincerely encouraged to do so and where a positive & understanding reception awaits them removes stigma, builds commitment and opens up the possibility of a range of interventions. Performance reviews and 1-2-1s are ideal opportunities to focus on the individual not just the job, building the rapport and trust that is vital if personal concerns are to be constructively addressed.
Equally important is that any disclosure is treated empathetically. Staff are often concerned that “failings” might impact their job security, earnings or future prospects. In some circumstances it is conceivable that short-term action (e.g. delaying or curtailing an assignment) may be needed to best protect the individual and the organisation. Such steps require reassurance and mutual understanding.
Coaching from supportive managers or colleagues with experience of similar scenarios may be invaluable for some situations. More severe cases, such as depression, will probably require specialist support. Whether provided in-house or by firms such as Morneau Shepell, confidential, professional help should be available in the field, online or over the phone.
The role and the suitability of the individual are obviously key. Is the duration of the posting reasonable in the circumstances? Is the individual experienced and sufficiently resilient? Have their personal circumstances been taken into account in making this assessment? Overseas postings can sometimes be used as an escape without resolution of the underlying issues which can also be impacting the wider family not just the individual. Given the territory, nature of work and duration has an appropriate level of medical, security and personal training & support been provided before, during and after the posting?
This is a difficult and thorny subject without any easy answers. That’s why organisational culture is so important and often so unintentionally lacking. The same imperatives apply to this subject as to any other employment issue however:
- Every employer has a duty of care to their staff and wider public. These legal duties compel us to take all reasonable steps to safeguard the health and wellbeing of others. As awareness of mental health concerns grows, the responsibilities of managers, directors and Trustees across the organisation will be harder to avoid.
- Whether through delays, mistakes, lower productivity, absence or recruitment, we all know that sub-standard performance costs money. At worst, the most serious instances of cultural failings can also damage organisational reputation and have a sustained impact.
Perhaps more importantly than anything is the moral imperative. None of us set out to cause harm to others and the most serious cases of mental ill health can be pernicious, impacting not just the individual but friends, family, the organisation and others. I’m sure all of us would expect support from others so have we done all we can to create that environment?
Coretta Scott King reminded us that: “The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.” With just a little more forethought and action, we can ensure that our communities at work provide compassionate support, improving our places of work and perhaps, step-by-step, the wider society.
Tim Brangwyn is managing director of Millstream Underwriting Limited
This content has been supplied by a commercial partner. Millstream Underwriting Limited is the headline sponsor of Civil Society Media’s Charity People & Culture conference.