How can we break the taboo of mental health in the workplace?
Dr Zain Sikafi looks to health tech to help with mental wellbeing at work.
Awareness of mental health issues is steadily growing across the UK – it is becoming more common to read about mental health and encounter people who are happy to discuss their struggles.
The public, therefore, generally have a greater understanding of the symptoms, and are becoming much more open to the idea of speaking about their thoughts and feelings with a therapist, which is a welcome and much-needed progression for society.
Unfortunately, while there has certainly been progress, mental health problems in the workplace remain all too common. The Prime Minister’s independent ‘Thriving for Work’ report – backed by Deloitte and MIND – shows that 15% of people at work have symptoms of an existing mental health condition.
Meanwhile, a staggering 300,000 lose their jobs each year due to such problems, which costs the UK economy as much as £99bn per year.
For a sizeable segment of the UK population, work consumes a significant proportion of their day-to-day lives. As such, it’s not surprising that the long hours dedicated to one’s career will naturally have an impact on the mental wellbeing of professionals across a huge span of job roles.
It’s important to understand and address the obstacles that people in full-time work face when looking for professional help.
Indeed, just under 30% of businesses recently surveyed by the British Chambers of Commerce and Aviva said they had seen an increase in the number of employees affected by mental health issues in the last three years – demonstrating that more needs to be done to stimulate open discussion on the subject and improve the availability of support mechanisms for employees.
With mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and excessive stress impacting all aspects of life – affecting performance at work, relationships, and personal happiness – it’s important to understand and address the obstacles that people in full-time work face when looking for professional help.
Finding the time
Time remains one of the critical barriers preventing professionals seeking or getting treatment for mental health issues.
While some people may recognise that they need support, they can struggle to obtain the help they require due to the hectic nature of their work life. Having a regular, 9 to 5 job can make it incredibly difficult to find the time to see a counsellor or therapist.
This problem is compounded by the fact that it is still surprisingly rare that an individual is able to schedule an appointment after working hours or on the weekends.
Waiting times are another obstacle stopping people from getting help with their mental health issues. It is common that those referred to therapy from the NHS have to wait months before being able to meet with a mental health professional.
And with the proportion of people needing support rising and the health service’s resources already thinly stretched, the NHS is struggling to cope with the demand for these services.
In the case of GPs, they are faced with massive pressure as they try their best to manage many of these mental health problems while patients wait for therapy. After all, there is only so much that can be done during a ten-minute slot in a GP surgery while a queue of other people sit in the waiting room.
Confidentiality and culture
There is another major barrier prohibiting people in some professions from seeking help for mental health issues: confidentiality. For one, the lingering taboo surrounding mental health means that confidentiality is essential to many people who do not want their colleagues, friends or family to find out about their struggles.
This is particularly true within a workplace where employees feel that revealing or discussing their mental health issues will have a negative impact on their job. In fact, a survey of 1,500 managers found that 67% consider there to be a stigma when it comes to stress, anxiety and other mental health issues in the workplace.
Worse yet, if they are in a profession like piloting, for example, they could be unable to work if diagnosed with a mental health issue such as depression. The result is that individuals are less likely to take time off work or accept appointments within working hours – both of which would likely require them to explain their absence or have to lie in order to cover up where they are going each week.
No matter how supportive employers are, the fact remains that only a small percentage of employee well-being programmes are utilised.
Feeling the need to hide their mental health struggles from their employers and colleagues, professionals often refrain from seeking the help that they require; evidently, a culture shift is required so that support is not just available but also so employees feel confident that they can be open with their bosses and colleagues about their mental health problems.
How tech can help
Thankfully, the rise of health tech is opening up new avenues for people to get the support they need for mental health issues. Similar to what we have witnessed in virtually all areas of our professional and personal lives, technology has completely transformed the delivery of services, in particular therapy, to address the key obstacles faced by patients.
The availability of live video technology, for instance, allows busy professionals to see a therapist at their convenience by offering quick booking and flexible appointment times.
These new solutions are stripping away factors previously stopping people from getting they help they need, such as health practitioners only being available between 8am and 6pm – this means that those struggling with their mental health now have the ability to speak to someone outside of weekday office hours.
With confidentiality being a key concern for those in high-pressure work environments, technological innovations also give people the security of private and confidential counselling – eliminating the added stress of worrying about employers, colleagues or even close friends and family finding out. All of this should be celebrated.
Mental health is a pressing national issue that affects people from all walks of life. Positively, progress is being made in raising awareness of mental health problems, but the current pressure on mental health services, the inflexibility of the current systems, and a stigma about the topic means that those looking for support still face many obstacles.
Fortunately, the rise of health tech is providing alternative solutions to the traditional avenues for support – making it easier for those struggling at home or at work to get the help that they need.
About the author
Dr Zain Sikafi is co-founder and CEO of Mynurva.
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