In 2020, an old friend of mine, a work colleague, committed suicide. My first thought on learning of his death was to recall the last time I saw him, the last time we caught up over coffee and chatted about our lives. How confusing it was to learn that he could be so unhappy, and yet I did not know. How did I not notice he was facing such an extreme decision in his life? How is it that a person, for whatever reason, isn’t able to share their desperation with a close friend?
My friend’s death has inspired me to share my thoughts and personal experience of mental health issues at work. What action we can take to support colleagues in mental distress, and how can we help prevent the leading cause of suffering and death in men under 45 in the UK?
I have worked in the City for 20 years and have found it to be a close-knit community of people who are often supportive, charitable and closely connected with each other. Since becoming a psychotherapist many years ago, I have become increasingly aware of how often these two worlds come together, and it seems timely to make a comment.
So, what’s wrong and how can we address it? Let me explain my thinking.
I believe we still have a predominant culture of silence around mental health in the UK, particularly in the place we spend most of our time, at work. This is especially true for men, who are three times less likely to seek help than women. In conversations with my psychotherapy clients over the years, I have noticed that people are often ashamed of feeling low. They fear that sharing such feelings with colleagues or managers at work could lead to reputational damage and reduced career prospects, so they suffer in silence, perhaps turning to alcohol, drugs, ‘workaholism’ or aggressive exercise as a distraction.
I kept my own mental health story to myself at work and suffered for years. The good news is that once I started sharing my feelings, things got much better.
I believe an answer to this crisis in the workplace is to create a culture of openness, where employees feel encouraged to speak about mental health issues. Such discussions needn’t be restricted to hushed conversations in meeting rooms or manager’s offices. We need companies to give more explicit, vocal permission to employees to speak up.
A wise person once said to me that suicide is often a permanent solution to a temporary problem. My theory is simple, if you are given more explicit permission by managers and colleagues to voice your feelings, the likelihood of suicidal thoughts becoming a temporary problem that spurs you to look for a better permanent solution is increased dramatically. We spend most of our waking day at work, if we can make a small change to the culture in our companies then the impact could be huge. I ask you to share this idea with your friends and colleagues if you have been affected by mental health, suicide has affected you or your family, or you simply support this idea.
I still work in the City and so feel I can still have a meaningful impact. I would like to raise awareness from the inside. Take this article as a call to action. If each and every one of us starts to speak out at work about issues that have affected us personally, we could effect change. Try talking to your colleagues more openly, and if you are a leader, a manager or a CEO, give your staff permission to speak up.
To find out more, how The Grove Practice at work can utilise 20 years of experience in bringing good mental health to the heart of the workplace offering unique blend of mental health support, psychotherapy, psychiatry, professional training courses as CPD for mental health professionals.
Robert is a UKCP Accredited Psychotherapist, Executive Coach who works in mental health with individuals, couples and organisations.
Managing Partner at the Grove Practice