canary-in-coal-mine

I’m guessing that you are probably a manager and that you don’t need much convincing that working in a mentally healthy place is imperative. And you would also agree that managing mental health issues at work can be tricky.

I agree! That’s why today I want to share with you one of The 7 Pillars for a Mentally Healthy Workplace. The 7 Pillars model is a simple but powerful guide to show you what to change and how in order to create a mentally healthy workplace

The 7 Pillars are core principles that need to underpin everything you do as a leader. If you really take this on board and really follow it, this will improve your practice as a manager, and it will save you time and energy managing mental health issues at work. These principles have been distilled from the extensive and rich qualitative and quantitative research conducted since the 1970’s that highlights what really works for people recovering from mental health problems.

I’ll start with pillar number 1 – “Us, not you.”

This principle helps you take your organisation or your team from stigma to unconditional positive regard for the person. What does it mean? In today’s workplaces, research shows that people are afraid to come out and tell their managers they are experiencing mental distress. Why? Because they feel it will hurt their careers. That’s what stigma is – discrimination because of a mental health problem. These beliefs run deep and create a lack of trust between management and staff. We need a paradigm shift. A shift of perspective that helps turn the problem into a competitive advantage. But how do we do that? We create and promote Unconditional Positive Regard.

But what does an organisation with Unconditional Positive Regard look like? It’s one where people are convinced that you value and appreciate them as a contributing member in spite of mental health challenges and, at times, because of having experienced mental health problems. Now, that sounds counterintuitive doesn’t it? How does that even work?

canary-in-coal-mine

(image credit: US State Dept./Doug Thompson)

Let me illustrate – In days gone by, miners used to take a little canary into the mine. You know why they used to do that?

Because in the mines there are dangerous gases that can come up, toxic gases. So miners used to take a canary because the canary, being a more sensitive animal, would start feeling sick, unwell before anyone else would…so they would watch the canary and if the canary started feeling unwell, what do you think they did? Well, I can tell you what they didn’t do. They didn’t say: “Don’t worry about it. He’s faking it! I’m sure he’s faking it.” “He’s not pulling his weight, is he?” No, they didn’t, did they? They got out of that mine immediately! They took care of the canary. They understood that the canary had a more sensitive nature. But they knew that that sensitivity itself IS the strength of the canary! That’s what made the canary such a good and valuable member of the team, didn’t it? You get it? So then going, “He’s faking it. Don’t worry about it. Let’s keep him out of the group.” “I am so busy, I don’t have time for this! This is most inconvenient, we’re producing so well, and now he goes crazy, this canary…” it’s not going to work!

So maybe there’s room for us to change, to revolutionize how we look at mental health and start thinking, “Is there something that we can learn together from this member of our team that seems to be in a more sensitive space at the moment?” Almost like a canary’s space. What are the toxic fumes that can possibly be in this team that no one else seems to have picked up yet, but that everyone is breathing? … It’s a more useful approach, isn’t it? So that’s what this first principle is about – “Us, not You”, acknowledging that we are in this together. To really start thinking and breathing as a team, “Hang on. One of our members is not well. That member is actually expressing what quite a few members in the team are not expressing.” And this is what the first Pillar is about: it’s not Your problem, but OUR problem, OUR opportunity.

So how do we put this into action at work? Well, ask yourself: do people feel safe to disclose to their manager when they are experiencing a mental health problem? Do your leaders know how to address stigma and discrimination when it arises at work? Do you have initiatives to support mental health for ALL employees, not just those who are having a mental health problem. Are reasonable adjustments (or flexible arrangements) accessible to ALL employees? These are some starting points to ensure Pillar 1 ‘Us not Them’ is upheld.

Till next time, take care of each other.

Author: Peter Diaz
Peter-Diaz-AuthorPeter Diaz is the CEO of Workplace Mental Health Institute. He’s an author and accredited mental health social worker with senior management experience. Having recovered from his own experience of bipolar depression, Peter is passionate about assisting organisations to address workplace mental health issues in a compassionate yet results-focussed way. He’s also a Dad, Husband, Trekkie and Thinker.

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