Mental health

Mental health in the workplace: Let’s work this out together

How are you supposed to react when a colleague says they're mentally ill?

It was Halloween when I hit rock bottom. That amazingly warm one a couple of years back when even the lighted pumpkins made you sweaty. But I was being haunted by the very worst dark thoughts. I was overcome with feelings of utter desolation and a consuming belief that my life would never get better.

Waiting at a crowded Central Line station I really considered jumping. I swayed back and forth on the platform edge making calculations about the speed of the trains. But I didn’t do it. Whether it was the sight of the scurrying Tube mice, the thought of my parents or just an overriding wish to go home and get into bed, I finally boarded the next train.

I can’t blame my depression on one person, situation or thing. I’d had it before in my teens and my 20s but either didn’t recognise it or had simply tried to ignore it. For me, depression was an inability to process life in any positive or constructive way. And when that happens to you, a stressful job, a bad credit card bill or a strained relationship can make you spiral ever further downwards.

I could usually handle the stress of working at the heart of the BBC newsroom, but I’d got to a stage where I could no longer cope with the job I loved. When I told my boss I was depressed, we both realised we were in uncharted waters. I wouldn’t have known what to do in his position. How are you supposed to react when a colleague tells you they’re mentally ill, what’s the right thing to say, how easy is it to get it horrendously wrong? I didn’t have those answers for him or me.

“What is needed so anyone can admit they’re in trouble and ask for help really isn’t rocket science”

Many of us worry that a helping hand or probing question about mental health could end up in an industrial tribunal. But what’s wrong with caring about a colleague? Living in the United States, I noticed people were far more willing to talk about their health at work – probably because that’s who pays their medical insurance. Here we leave all that to the NHS and resent our workplace butting in.

In my case my boss told me: ‘You need to get better, we want you back and we miss you.’ A really powerful yet simple sentence that played a major part in my recovery.

And then there’s the issue of men talking to men about their feelings – an even more scary prospect across the office desk. Suicide is still the biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK. We clearly aren’t doing enough as a sex to open up and seek help. Is this down to male bravado, or because we don’t really get the chance?

James Routledge started to get panic attacks and anxiety when he was working in the highly competitive start-up world. He bravely blogged about his battle – now he runs Sanctus, which aims to create the first mental health gyms. He says men get a bad press about opening up and discussing what’s going on in their minds.

‘Guys can support each other – they’re just not given the space or the opportunity,’ he told me recently. ‘Women create more room in their lives to talk to each other, but men rarely do. If you create the space and make someone feel safe they will talk.’

But the most important thing is to admit it yourself first. ‘Above all, mental health is your responsibility,’ James continued. ‘Someone can ask you a million times a day how you are – but it’s no use if you aren’t ready to open up.’

It was on a sabbatical at the University of Michigan that I wanted to see how we could build that space, support and encouragement at work. Michigan came at just the right time in my life. A year after my depression I was ready for a break, a new challenge and a way of using my darkest days to try and help others.

I visited financial and media giants in New York and London to see what mental health initiatives worked best and what was needed so anyone could admit they’re in trouble and ask for help. And it really isn’t rocket science.

Safe and quiet spaces, the right resources promoted well, and a handle on why people are really off sick are vital. But it’s often authentic and confident trailblazers at work who really have the biggest impact and can turn around a culture at work.

As James Routledge told me, it’s up to senior staff to use their own stories to create an environment where people can admit they’re also struggling. ‘A company is like a human – if it’s battered and bruised, then more work is needed by those at the top to make it better.’

And I’d like to see it start with a company’s mental health first.

Matthew Shaw is a senior editor at BBC News and a mental health advocate

Working brief

When he was developing the BBC’s Open Up staff campaign, Matthew Shaw devised six steps to a good company mental health policy.

1. It’s OK to ask someone if they’re OK

Let them know you’re worried, let them know they can trust you, be honest and authentic but give them time to admit something’s up.

2. What’s your story?

We all have mental health, we’ve all felt down, stressed or dark at some point in our lives. Share your experience to encourage and support others.

3. Find a safe place

No one wants to open up in the middle of the office. Find a place you both know that’s quiet and relaxed near work – far enough to feel you’re offline.

4. Get clued up

Whether you’re one of thousands in a multinational or in a tiny workspace with your best mate – have the right numbers, links and leaflets at your fingertips.

5. Take a break

We all bring our minds into work – give them a little more space and flexibility. A long walk at lunch or an occasional duvet day should be part of your working culture.

6. Be the boss

No one will open up and seek help if they don’t think the boss has got their back. One brave word from the top can transform a business from the bottom up.