Mental health awareness action gap
A senior communication professional shares a personal story of their own mental health and the difference between their organisation’s policy on mental health and the reality.
A reader speculatively sent me this guest blog post after the conversation this week around World Mental Health Day. It spotlights the gap between what organisations say, and what they are actually doing, to support their employees.
I don’t usually post anonymous blogs but this is an important issue and I’ve verified the identity of the author via two sources. You’ll get a measure of the individual's seniority and maturity from their writing.
A #FuturePRoof project that I led with Sarah Hall for the PRCA in 2017 found that that mental illness in public relations is frequently ignored, or managed as a line management or performance issue.
As this story shows awareness of mental health has improved in the last two years but organisations are failing to follow through with action. Performance management continues to be a common means of managing mental health issues.
Professional communicators have a responsibility to call out the gap between awareness and policy implementation. The mental health of your organisation - and life itself - depends on it.
Now please read on.
On World Mental Health Day there are organisations all over the planet lined up to pat themselves on the back and talk at length about the work they've done to help people suffering with mental illness.
The organisation I work for was one of them.
As someone with a senior communications role, if I wasn't off work at the moment suffering from stress and anxiety issues, I'd have been the one penning our contribution to the thousands of blogs, videos and media released which we’ve all seen pumped out this week.
I'm sure that a lot of employers are doing great things and are taking mental health seriously — but sticking out a couple of tweets or posting a video on Facebook isn't enough. Not if they really want to improve the mental health and wellbeing of their employees.
When we create posts saying "it's okay to speak about mental health here" are we sure that it is? Or what will happen when someone does? And is it our job, as communicators, to be sure we know the answers to those questions before we create that narrative?
Paying lip service to mental health
The fact that I'm off work, seeing first hand how poor my organisation is at helping people in the situation I'm in, has prompted me to question my role in helping to promote those positive messages. I live and work for the biggest and best known employer in my community.
I felt physically sick when my own doctor said: "Oh, they're quite good with mental health aren't they? I've seen something on Facebook." Not in my experience. Even if I was probably the author of the post to which you're referring.
I know that the vast majority of us are ethical and practice professionally — we'd never lie about something in order to avoid negative coverage, or deliberately misrepresent what our organisations do in order to make them appear more favourable.
But how much responsibility do we have if the clear intent of the corporate centre of a business is poles apart from the reality of life in an organisation? If the objective is simply to help break the stigma by talking about mental health, then fine — any communications which help prompt conversations are positive.
At my organisation we’ve got some great people who really are doing what they can to make things better. But culturally and organisationally we're miles away from where we need to be.
Ethical responsibility of communicators to call out perception gap
I believe that if you're expecting to add sales or gain stakeholder advocacy for being an ethical and progressive company, you actually need to be doing something tangible to help your own employees who are suffering from mental illness.
If I was at work this week, I'd have been sharing a video we recorded with one employee, in which he speaks really positively about the line manager who saved him from suicide.
He waxes lyrical about how this manager helps him stay healthy and in work by encouraging him to work from home or catch up on things at weekends if things get too much and he has to take time off during the week.
What isn't in the video is that the line manager's flexibility goes against the rules laid out in our organisations' terms and conditions, and that for the vast majority of the thousands of people in our business the experience is very different.
Off camera, the interviewee told us that his previous three line managers hadn't had the first idea about mental illness and that one had tried to have him dismissed for poor performance owing to the amount of time he'd had off sick.
The fact he's in employment, and doing so well, owes more to good luck than "mental health being taken seriously here" as I've personally written in some of our company messages on the issue.
All three of his previous managers are still with our company, and still managing people.
Real human stories that aren’t in the comms plan
Now that I have my own personal experience, and that it’s much closer to his previous experiences than the one which we celebrated in the video, I feel I may have let down other employees, by promoting the very best of what my company does, rather than something more neutral, which aimed to improve it.
I know of others who are unwell in other departments, and who have horror stories far, far worse than mine.
One person that I'm in contact with has been off for more than three months. He ended up under the NHS crisis team after he tried to take his own life, and even then it took someone going over his line managers' head and telling a director before he received a home visit. We've also had more than one employee die from suicide in the past year.
None of that was in the plan for World Mental Health Day, when we presented an image of an organisation doing fantastic work, and making great inroads into tackling the issues of mental health and wellbeing.
As I write this, I'm still in a pretty bad place. But not as bad as last week. And I have hope. I'm getting some professional support. I've got great friends and a patient and understanding partner.
I'd like to think at some point in the not too distant future I'll be able to get back to work and make a contribution.
And when I do, I'll be far more challenging when presented with a 'good news story' by someone in human resources. However genuine their intentions.