Sunday, 15 October 2017

This Weeks Home Work: carry on talking, but let’s have more doing!

I wonder what you did last Tuesday. I spent the day working at home doing various things. My day started by exploring and contributing to what was being said on social media; walking 7.5k (my everyday prescription for promoting my own mental health and well-being – something Maureen Watts is also a fan of – more later); writing a slightly overdue report; spent a little time continuing with restoring the Horwich garden; having tea with 2 of my grandchildren, before watching catch up TV in the evening. An ordinary day I guess, minus the morning and evening commute. Last Tuesday was the 10th Oct 2017 and it was also World Mental Health Day 2017 (WMHD17).

WMHD17 is the day the World Health Organisation focus on spreading awareness and understanding about mental health. Every year a different theme is chosen and this year’s theme was mental health in the work place. It’s estimated that some 15% of the working population will experience mental health problems and 13% of all sickness absence days in the UK are due to a mental health problem. Women in full time employment are twice as likely to experience a mental health problem than men. However, recent research by the Mental Health Foundation, Oxford Economics and Unum found, almost counterintuitively, that employed people living with mental problems contribute £226 billion to the UK GDP, which is nearly 9 times the estimated cost to economic output due to mental health problems.

Interestingly, 86% of the study’s respondents felt that their job and being employed was important to protecting and maintaining their mental health and wellbeing. I say interestingly as in the 11 years I was a Dean of a very large health school, many conversations with Trade Union representatives revolved around responding to claims that decisions taken by myself or changes introduced by the wider University management team resulted in many, many (always never more precise than many, many) colleagues experiencing mental health and wellbeing problems. It’s also interesting to note that the report suggested that ensuring there is better mental health support in the workplace could actually save £8 billion a year for UK business.

It’s the organisations culture that can provide the real catalyst for change and ensure there is better support available. The Hoxby Collective, who provide a refreshing new approach to how people work, recently reported that 33% of workers said they experienced mental health problems as a direct result of the explicit and implicit expectations of their employers. For example, 61% of those surveyed reported that they felt pressure to work late, because their manager works late or they were keen to be noticed in order to enhance their promotion prospects. In some organisations this can be more noticeable than others. At the university, academic staff have a great deal more flexibility over how and where they work than say the professional support staff, who are often expected to work a fairly rigid 9-5 day.

Managers need to lead by example. For many years my working day would start at 06.00 and finish any time around 18.00, with there often being evening meetings or events to attend as well. I was very conscious that others might see this model of working the norm and I am very grateful that so many people didn’t! Eventually, this pattern of working contributed to my own experience of mental health problems, and yet for a very long time nobody in my organisation ever commented on the risks I might be running in adopting this approach to work.

Ironically perhaps, ensuring the good mental health and wellbeing of my colleagues was an important element of what I believed I was there to do. I also believed (believe still) that I was open, supportive and facilitative when colleagues shared their problems and concerns with me. I sincerely worked to ensure that colleagues achieved a healthy work life balance while completely ignoring my own advice! And whilst I have been well rewarded in many ways over the years, such success has come at a cost, mainly in broken and fractured family and personal relationships.

I fully support initiatives such as WMHD17, and the impact raising awareness of mental health issues has on society’s views of mental illness is welcomed. Conversations and discussions about mental health are growing more common, but sadly, social and self-stigma is still evident in many areas of our lives. The Royal College of Psychiatrists recently published survey showed the public’s understanding of what is mental health and what a mental illness might be is still very limited, particularly when it comes to understanding how severe some mental illnesses can be. 

It seems to me that there is a gap here – between talking, knowing and doing! Something I guess Maureen Watts knew all about last week. Maureen is the Minster for Mental Health in the Scottish Parliament. Her personal welcome on her web site is ‘Aye, Aye Fit Like!’, which to some I guess sounds parliamentarian. Maureen’s 15 minutes of fame last week was to claim £4.68 for a taxi ride of less than a mile to deliver a speech on the benefits of physical activity on one's mental health and wellbeing. Possibly a case of carry on talking, but let’s have more doing!