Mental ill-health is often perceived as a personal struggle, left at the door when employees arrive for work. But 300,000 people with long-term mental ill health lose their jobs each year, due to a reluctance to discuss mental ill health in the work place, which results in employers being unaware of the needs of these individuals and how best to support and retain them. It is imperative that employers encourage their employees to bring their whole self to work.
Language not only plays a role in helping employees speak about and manage their emotional wellbeing, but it is also an important tool for managers in the workplace.
People are often reluctant to speak about their mental health for fear they will be treated differently. Conversations are often avoided, or when they do happen tend to focus on a very medicalised idea of mental health.
This medical dialogue strongly focuses on illness, diagnosis, and conditions. With the emphasis on ‘what is wrong with you’, mental health is seen as merely the absence of mental ill health. People don’t see mental health as something that exists on a continuum, that can be improved upon.
Speaking about mental health in purely diagnostic terms adds to the idea that anyone experiencing problems is ‘unwell’ and needs to be ‘treated’. Terms like ‘condition’ and ‘disorder’ exacerbate the stigma, preventing people from seeking support – especially in the workforce, where they fear they’ll be overlooked in terms of career progression as a result.
These fears are seemingly well-founded, too, with nine out of 10 people experiencing mental ill-health saying they have been subject to discrimination, according to Disability Rights UK. To counter this, the first step is changing our language. The language we use conveys our thoughts and feelings, as well as facts and information. Language plays a critical role in the way we think. There are words and phrases that may alienate those who are experiencing emotional distress.
In moving away from a diagnostic model of language regarding mental ill health, the aim is to normalise discussions about the subject. We all have mental health, and our mental fitness can change at any time depending on what is happening around us.
We need to reflect this in our language. For example, instead of focusing on the ‘1 in 4’ people currently experiencing mental health problems, we should discuss the ‘4 in 4’ people who have mental health that needs protecting and maintaining. One way to communicate this is by showing mental health as a continuum. At one end there is ‘maximum mental fitness’ and the other, ‘minimum mental fitness’.
We are all somewhere along this continuum and our position changes day to day, week to week, month to month. The goal for managers is to help employees identify where they are currently and how to access the support that will help them move towards their maximum desired mental fitness.
Managers should be supported to raise their awareness of the language that will help them achieve better outcomes from conversations around emotional wellbeing. For example, when speaking to someone who may be experiencing difficulties with their emotional health, managers should be attentive to what they say and ask themselves questions like: How do the words I have chosen reflect my attitude to this subject/ person? How will someone else hear or read this? Am I communicating in an open, respectful, and non-judgemental way? Am I acknowledging somebody else’s right to be different?
Normalising conversations around mental health means naturalising the topic. In the same way colleagues may chat about their weekends over the water cooler, managers should ask individuals for informal chats, asking casual questions like ‘how are you feeling?’.
These conversations require language free from the loaded terms and toxic vocabulary which traditionally accompany them. Terms like ‘psycho’ and ‘crazy’ are emotive and damaging.
Not in recent years has the nation collectively experienced the challenges to mental wellbeing brought about by the current pandemic. If we act now, and act together, we can use this shared experience to bring about change. Together we can help encourage empowering conversations around mental health and help more people access the support they need, earlier.