The coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on not only the importance of protecting our physical health, but messages about preserving our mental health are now gaining traction on social media, news outlets and in general conversation. Prince William has thrown his weight behind the subject too, working on various mental health awareness campaigns, video conferencing with medical staff around the world, chatting to care home residents and opening up about his own feelings when he became a father for the first time.
The end of May brought an important new focus for him, as he recorded a segment for BBC One’s The One Show. In it, he warned of the dangers of placing frontline NHS staff fighting Covid-19 on a pedestal of heroism, pointing out that doing so ran the risk of burdening them with huge pressure to ‘keep calm and carry on’ – without feeling able to seek help with their own emotional and mental health.
Indeed, there have been mixed reactions to the weekly ‘clap for carers’ activities that have seen us appear on our doorsteps every Thursday at 8pm since lockdown began. Some have welcomed the unprecedented surge of public support, while others have found it hard to live up to public expectations, or to take it all in after a tough and tiring shift.
Either way, in our eagerness to publicly demonstrate our gratitude to key workers, we must remain vigilant that we are not adding to their burden with our high expectations of them, nor ignoring the fact that they may be secretly struggling under the heightened conditions of stress and anxiety they are facing at work.
This is an important message for people in all walks of life. While our colleagues may seem on the surface to be coping well at work and happy to take on heavy challenges, they may be feeling very different underneath. Unlike physical illnesses and conditions that often manifest themselves visually and leave others in no doubt that the person with them is unwell, symptoms of mental health distress can be harder to spot.
Especially so when the person considers themselves to be a high achiever, perhaps leading a team or managing an important project. It is not uncommon for leaders to feel that they ‘haven’t got time to be depressed’, or that ‘anxiety only happens to other people’ as they push themselves beyond their comfortable limits to get the job done.
It is all of our responsibility to look out for each other at work and to encourage people to seek help if they seem to be struggling. There are many tell-tale signs that show someone is not coping well. They may start to display poor memory or a lack of concentration. They could lose their appetite and appear tired and listless. Some people become more impatient or less inclined to contribute to meetings or discussions. Often, the person may feel worse and display more symptoms in the morning, but feel better as the day goes on and they can look forward to going home.
The most important thing you can do to help someone that you believe to be struggling with their mental health at work is to let them know that you are there. Offer them your listening ear and encourage them to see you as a non-judgemental person who can help them talk through their anxieties. Show them where they can find professional help, such as your company’s wellbeing programme or counselling service if you have one, or from their own GP or a charity offering specialist help.
See if your company can find the budget to train a small group of employees as Mental Health First Aiders, who are taught how to spot symptoms and offer support. Online courses are available to enable participants to continue their training remotely while the country slowly eases out of lockdown. The course also covers different personality types and how people cope in different ways with challenges and difficult times at work.
Another key point in all of this is that it’s not only work-related stresses that can affect people’s mental health at work. Obstacles, problems and tough times can affect our personal lives just as much and it can be incredibly hard, if not impossible not to bring some of that mental burden into work. Keep in touch with what’s going on for your employees in their personal lives and be ready to step in and help them cope if something goes wrong.
Life-changing events such as divorce, sickness or bereavement can leave people unable to handle even the smallest changes or problems at work and these are times when compassion, patience and understanding are crucial.
Be ready to come up with alternative ways to get the project done if the signs are there that your colleague may be starting to struggle with an issue or situation outside work.
Above all, keep communications open and let them talk to you without expectation or judgement. Many people want to be part of the solution, even in the depths of mental health difficulties, and should not be side-lined in discussions unless it is deemed medically unsafe for them to take part.
Prince William may not be working as a frontline doctor or nurse. Yet his words and the language he has used to warn against overblown idolatry at the expense of people’s states of mind has opened up the subject of mental health at work to a far wider audience than could have been possible, pre-Covid-19. He has helped put an essential, yet often ignored issue on the international news agenda. It’s now up to us as leaders, to keep the momentum going and make sure that we leave no one behind in our bid to get the country back up and working again.
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 Source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-52783918/prince-william-on-parenting-and-mental-health
 Source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-52844823
 Source: ‘A Guide to mental health at work: how to help colleagues cope with stress and depression’ by Sir John Thompson, 2019, pp 38-41
 Source: https://mhfaengland.org