Working human – treating colleagues with respect by building and nurturing an inclusive workplace – goes a long way toward influencing positive culture change.
Employee-centric workplaces can play a large role on days like today – the observation of World Mental Health Day, which raises awareness of what needs to be done to make mental healthcare, especially the warning signs of suicide, a reality for people worldwide.
“It’s an important issue that affects a lot more people than people realize,” says David O’Leary, board chair of the Boston chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). More than 800,000 people die by suicide each year, according to the World Health Organization, which translates to a suicide every 40 seconds. This makes suicide the 10th leading cause of death.
While World Mental Health Day brings awareness to numerous mental health issues, including depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorders, David’s organization focuses on suicide. There are three main risk factors that can converge at different times in life and increase a person’s risk for suicidal behavior – health, historical, and environmental. And it’s the workplace that can have a direct impact on the environmental risk.
“That’s where people are spending the majority of their time throughout the day,” says Tara Greeley, area director, Eastern Massachusetts, AFSP. “So being part of a company culture that fosters an environment where it’s OK to talk about mental health is important. Anyone can say this is going to be our office culture, but it takes a company as a whole – leadership, investors, HR – to buy into it to make it work.”
Businesses can help raise mental health awareness through benefits and programs, like health insurance that includes access to mental health services and employer resource groups.
“Making it easier for people to access resources goes a long way toward helping everybody understand this is normal,” says David. “We’re normalizing this conversation. We have to let people know it’s OK to talk about people who are not feeling OK.”
David urges people to be careful with their language when discussing suicide. “Rather than say someone committed suicide, you should say (he or she) died by suicide. The word ‘committed’ is not a word we use. That conveys a lot of judgement and stereotypes."
David and Tara are passionate about mental health awareness and education – putting together a presentation called “Talk Saves Lives,” including recommendations on what to look for and what to do.
What to look for:
Tara says there are specific behaviors that could raise concerns that a co-worker is struggling with mental illness. New behaviors like showing up late, not looking professional, going out for drinks after work more often than usual, and becoming more reserved can be signs. Also, life events can play a factor – like ending a relationship, not getting a promotion, or a sick family member.
“Often what you don’t see is below the surface,” says Tara, which is why connectedness and communication at work can play a positive role in raising awareness. “It’s really important for peers and, especially, managers to notice a change in behavior.”
Paying attention to the language a co-worker uses can be a hint of something wrong. Phrases like ‘I’m a burden,’ or ‘people would be better off doing this without me’ could be warning signs as well.
What to do:
If someone recognizes one or more of these signs, communication is the first and best step. A simple question like ‘I’ve noticed you don’t seem yourself. Is everything OK?’ can open the lines of conversation.
“To take that step is challenging to many people, and perhaps even more so in a work environment,” says David. “But having the conversation and bringing it up is the easiest thing you can do – and it helps the most.”
Both David and Tara agree it’s important to act, because it’s possible the concerned co-worker is the only one who will take that step.
“Take advantage of those awkward moments to be the one to ask the question if someone is OK,” says Tara, “because you should assume you’re going to be the only one to ask.”
World Mental Health Day is today, but mental health is an always-on issue. Organizations have the opportunity to educate their employees and offer resources, but creating an employee-centered workplace, one that is built on connectivity and trust, is a moral imperative.
“A company culture is not just created by HR or by the board input,” says Tara. “A company culture is dependent on the people upholding those expectations and empowering everyone in the company to be agents of change, and to be agents of making conversations about mental health.”
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