In the past couple of weeks I’ve heard two very different companies use the phrase ‘mental health first aider’. I think growing awareness around mental health and wellbeing is to be applauded. But I have something of a cynical side, possibly because I’ve seen too many organisations go through the motions with initiatives when the underlying motivation appears to be ‘to be seen to being doing the right thing’ or ‘ticking a box’. Actually doing the right thing is far more committing.
At the same time it’s important to recognise employers are limited to what they can do since personal well being is often to do with more than just an individuals experience at work. I’ve written previously about the ambiguity of ‘mental health’ in so far that commonly used terms like stress, depression or resilience are rarely – in my experience – arbitrary terms. The factors that constitute a persons mental well being are complex and accumulated over a life time. That’s not to say it is fixed…it certainly isn’t and a willingness to be healthier and to take the necessary physical, psychological and dare I say, spiritual steps to accomplish this can be taken by any person at any time. None the less work is a strong contributing factor to well being.
The other week, I delivered a management training course and one of the participants talked about ‘time’ or rather lamented the lack of time in her day and week to spend doing things out with work. Work life balance is a commonly used term but it’s important to recognise it is more than just breaks and holidays. It’s also the feeling of control, of give and take between work and personal life. I was chatting to the CEO of a busy social enterprise (a mother with two school aged children) who happily told me that she didn’t mind working in the evening. She explained this sometimes got a reaction from people who strongly believed working in the evening had to be a bad thing! But for her it was the feeling of being in control, of ‘give and take’. She could take time during the day for personal life if need be and told me how she often did this. The feeling of having some control over our work can really help stress levels and therefore positive mental health. This feeling and perception of control has to extend to other areas of work, from management style through to work objectives and the way work is completed. A lack of control is more likely to lead to a feeling of helplessness and consequently excessive amounts of stress.
This is where organisational commitment comes in. Whilst a mental health first aider is a positive move, organisations also have to recognise that the relationship between employee and work is one of the key contributors to poor mental health.
It’s hard to wade through the headlines and find the truth of a situation, particularly one as complex and sensitive as mental health.
I am interested in mental health for various reasons; at times in my life I have experienced anxiety and feelings akin to panic attacks. Furthermore I have an eleven month old baby daughter with a very complex medical condition. The feeling of helplessness and despair have been, at times, extraordinarily stressful. Meanwhile at work, whether as a lecturer or an HR consultant, I’m particularly conscious of mental health as an increasingly common issue.
As a lecturer my focus is for the most part on young adults aged 18-22. We frequently encounter students suffering from anxiety and other mental health issues. I’m skeptical about what I sometimes see as the lazy/general claims made about the younger generation, but I have concluded that I do see a generation more afflicted by mental health issues. I wonder what causes this; is it the way they were raised? Is it the all-consuming influence of technology and social media? Is it that people are increasingly separated from nature and healthy living? Or is it that they are simply more aware of mental health issues and this results in both greater transparency? I suspect it’s a combination of all of the above.
The situation in industry is not so different. I hear a similar story from clients in different industries; reports of employees suffering from mental health problems. People on medication or signed off from work. They seem to feel under more pressure and many are struggling under this pressure. In industry the terminology used to describe the issue is a little different from education - it’s probably more stress than anxiety.
Greater awareness of mental health issues is a good thing. But there is still a stigma because people don’t want to be labeled or singled out. There is still a perception that a problem is a negative, that to suffer means you are somehow fragile or weak. Such attitudes are of course completely wrong. Not just because asking for help is never wrong…but also I’d argue we all have mental health problems. Yep everyone of us. Is this a controversial thing to say? Some might argue I’m demeaning those with problems whilst others will say “they are perfectly ok thank you very much and don’t need to be described as suffering from mental health issues”!
My answer is I think mental health can rarely be looked at in an arbitrary way. Life is tough and modern life is in many ways completely unnatural. I don’t think you either have depression or not. I don’t think you either have anxiety or none at all. We all suffer from stress, we all have anxiety at least from time to time and at times in our lives we feel depressed. I really don’t believe anyone cruises through this life untouched. Whilst an arbitrary label can help some to seek the support and get them the help they need, for others it can become a crutch and an excuse…yes I know to some ears this could be the second controversial thing I’ve said but in my observation it’s something I believe to be true, whether we are referring to students or people in the workforce.
I think the key differentiator in someone’s health is often not what is wrong with them, but how they deal with it. To that end I think it’s about giving people the tools to cope with mental health issues. Part of this is definitely encouraging people to talk about their issues but it’s also about giving them techniques to help deal with their problems. In the workplace it has to be about employers, not to mention managers, being more aware of mental health issues. In universities and colleges we have to bravely and unashamedly help build our students resilience – for which there are no short cuts - and help to teach them coping strategies. Life is hard but it is good too and ensuring we have the tools to help manage our wellbeing can make it that bit better.
According to the recent CIPD report ‘investigating the untapped potential of UK skills’ 88% of employers say communication skills are either ‘fairly’ or ‘very important’ employee skills. Meanwhile 85% say the same thing about team working skills. But how do you quantify those skills? The problem is these so called ‘soft skills’ are notoriously difficult to measure or capture. It just so happens psychometric personality tests claim to help measure communicative and behavioural skills. But do these profiles work or are they just gimmicks and if they do work what are the basic lessons we need to be mindful off?
For the purposes of this blog I will write predominantly about DISC which is one of the most commonly used psychometric tests.
How does it work?
Psychometric profiles like DISC are amazingly easy to complete and users complete their profiles by answering questions via an online questionnaire. The tests use accumulated results and algorithms to ensure reliability and validity.
Things to avoid when using DISC
In conclusion psychometrics such as DISC can contribute to enhanced team and communication skills. Just remember they are only a tool and like any other tool it’s all about how they are used!