Whether we’re catching up with friends over coffee or putting the world to rights in the pub, there are plenty of times when it feels good to talk.
For centuries, talking has provided people with a vital outlet for their problems and worries. By sharing our concerns, we are able to lift some of the load on our shoulders, ushering in feelings of relief and allowing us to move into more positive territory.
For anyone struggling with mental health issues, the benefits of talking are felt even more keenly. It can provide the first step to seeking help or the means for others to understand your situation. Put simply, it has the power to change lives.
Finding time to talk
This is the message at the heart of Time to Talk Day, co-ordinated by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness on February 2. The partners aim to generate the nation’s biggest mental health conversation, encouraging people to open up about the challenges they face without fear of judgement and discrimination.
Workplaces play a fundamental role in the success of such campaigns and, thankfully, today’s employers are largely aware of their responsibility to provide support in this area. Even prior to the pandemic, mental health was identified by the majority of organisations as the leading boardroom priority in relation to staff well-being.
The experiences of the following years then acted as a catalyst for change, and research now shows that more than nine in ten (93%) companies offer mental health benefits of some kind. In addition, more than three-quarters (77%) report that workers are showing increasing levels of engagement with the mental health benefits on offer.
While this paints a promising picture, evidence suggests employees remain reticent to talk about mental health issues at work. This is borne out by separate research which indicates that as many as two-thirds (67%) of people have lied to their employer about taking time off as a result of poor mental health, and yet just one in eight (13%) would be comfortable speaking to their employer about their need for a break.
Helping employees open up
Talking, therefore, can be seen as both the answer and the problem – it is the route to addressing difficulties, and it might seem a simple thing to do, but actually getting a conversation started is not necessarily that easy.
One of the most significant barriers is fear. Employees are often scared to open up about stress, anxiety or other problems because they think it will have negative consequences, such as being stigmatised by colleagues or hampering potential career progression. Mind advises organisations to counter this by underlining the importance of staff well-being within the company culture and sending a clear signal that openness will result in support rather than discrimination, with mental health treated in the same way as physical health.
Consistency is also important to reinforce an accepting culture, and this can be achieved by regularly checking in with staff and asking how they are. There is no particular way to approach these conversations, Mind advises, pointing out that any level of communication is preferable to none at all.
Managers should, however, use their common sense when dealing with the delicate subject of mental health, taking the lead with employees and demonstrating supportiveness and empathy. While a lack of confidence might make it tempting to transfer such conversations to a formal setting, Mind advocates establishing an open one-to-one dialogue as a first step and to focus on listening without making any assumptions. From here, you can work together to develop an action plan to manage the situation.
Access to practical support
An increasing array of employee benefits are available to provide practical help. Private medical insurance can fulfil this need, with some policies providing staff with the means to discuss issues with qualified counsellors or enabling them to engage with talking therapies. Apps and digital platforms, many of which allow the user to remain anonymous, are also a popular way of making help accessible. This can include subscriptions to mindfulness services, tools to manage regular check-ins or access to a social support network.
Even where these tools don’t directly involve talking, they can involve a similar process: the conscious labelling of emotions. Research has shown that putting our emotions into words in this way, known as verbalisation, is pivotal in managing mental struggles because it reduces activation in the part of the brain that controls our fight, flight or freeze response. As such, we become less reactive and more in control.
When it comes to the mental well-being of staff, therefore, finding the time to talk can be invaluable. And when this is backed by the right company culture the right employee benefits, increasing numbers of workers will feel empowered to speak up.
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