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Why empathy is critical when it comes to mental health in the workplace

23 Oct 2019

Would you feel comfortable telling colleagues about a lunchtime therapy visit? An IAPI and TABS mental health campaign wants to change that.

Mental health and wellbeing is becoming more accepted as simply another facet of our overall health, rather than something separate. As a result, more employers and employees are now realising that it is something critical that needs to be considered in the workplace.

Through a new initiative, the Institute of Advertising Practitioners in Ireland (IAPI) and The Advertising Benevolent Society (TABS) are hoping to extend that consideration to workers in Ireland’s advertising industry.

Called Smash, the programme promises provision of 24/7 support for mental wellbeing. Cognisant of the many contributing factors to positive mental health, it will also place emphasis on financial and legal advice, career coaching and parenting support services.

Following its recent launch, we talked to two full-time workers with mental illness in this sector to better understand the importance of such initiatives for workplaces in general, and to hear the advice they can offer to others.

Meeting in the middle

Just starting out on her career, Rachel O’Neill has been working for a year as a content creator in the advertising industry.

O’Neill was diagnosed with anxiety during the second year of her undergraduate degree in neuroscience, during which time pressure around her academic performance found her experiencing major depressive episodes. Now, having completed her studies, O’Neill can cast an analytic eye over her time at college and how it compares with working life.

‘Being a good manager is being approachable not only when things are easy, but being able to approach someone on a Monday morning or Wednesday evening when everyone’s working late’

Although she still takes occasional sick days when necessary, working has encouraged her to “manage” her mental wellbeing more effectively, and she emphasised the role of good management in that.

“More than anything, it’s about good management. Managers can say they’re approachable, but they need to mean it,” she said.

Working life has certainly required her to adapt how she manages her condition, but she explained how, for her, that adaptability has been a two-way street. “My managers have adapted to those challenges for me.”

‘It’s about constant support’

O’Neill wants companies to “be able to level with employees and have a robust conversation about mental health supports”.

“It’s more than getting someone in to talk about mindfulness for an hour as part of your health week – it’s about constant support that people can go to and rely on,” she added.

“Just because you get a mindfulness professional once a year doesn’t mean it will be at the right time – someone could have a mental health crisis at any time.

“Being a good manager is being approachable not only when things are easy, say on a Friday afternoon, but being able to approach someone on a Monday morning or Wednesday evening when everyone’s working late.”

Speaking about her thoughts on Smash, she said: “To have that resource there for smaller agencies is really good. It’s not just about the mental health supports it’s providing, but also the legal supports and financial supports and advice, those are really helpful. Those are things that people are really afraid to talk about.

“If every workplace could adapt something like what IAPI have launched, I think we’d be in a much better place.”

Sharing the experience

O’Neill is perhaps representative of a generation that is more open about mental health, but Nick Fletcher brought us some insights from a more senior perspective.

Fletcher is a director at the marketing and communications agency Core, where twice a year he offers his colleagues talks about the challenges he has faced and how he overcame them. In his eyes, “sharing opens up conversations”, and those conversations are critical to mental upkeep.

He emphasised that when someone “a bit older” speaks up about their own mental health, it can open the eyes of others to how pervasive and all-encompassing those issues often are. In his words, you simply “cannot underestimate just talking and having a shared experience”.

A dramatic wake-up

Despite having cultivated a “toolbox” to manage his mental health, tough days are still a familiar part of Fletcher’s life. He discussed the pivotal moment in his life, the one that forced him to “wake up” and acknowledge the damage that overworking was doing to his mental health.

During the sixth hour of a long meeting 15 to 20 years ago, he did something very out of character for him. Amid negotiations on a €20m deal, he stood up, announced that he was bored and walked out.

Ending up shaking uncontrollably and crying in another part of the office building, Fletcher was experiencing something that, at the time, he had never even heard of. It was “an incredibly severe panic attack”, he said, and since then he has been a determined advocate for workplace mental health support.

Looking back on that day, Fletcher explained why he thinks the Smash initiative – something that “wasn’t there” for him – is necessary.

“I was lost. I had no idea what was happening me. It was horrendous. That still happens today, unfortunately, but there are now places and options for people, and it’s just about encouraging them to use it.”

The ideal circumstances

At Core, Fletcher ensures that investing in mental health awareness is a priority. The company holds dedicated awareness months that incorporate external speakers, as well as a resident mentorship programme, fresh fruit every day and confidential access to counsellors.

“Mentoring is the most rewarding thing I do in the company,” he added.

‘We look after our cars better than we do our own mental health. How crazy is that?’

A huge aspect of that is reassuring employees that discussing their mental health at work won’t lead to discrimination, such as in considerations for promotions.

To achieve this, he said: “Training needs to be there for managers around helping employees that approach them.”

His “dream”, as he described it, is that one day he’ll be able to listen to a co-worker tell him about their gym plans for lunch and to respond with details of his own lunchtime agenda – a visit to his therapist.

“I would love a day when I can turn around and say something like that and people don’t bat an eyelid,” he said.

Words of advice

O’Neill and Fletcher, though at very different points in their careers, both had similar messages for people living with mental illness.

O’Neill suggested being as open with your line manager as possible and remembering to say ‘no’ to things, as “becoming overwhelmed is a real problem for a lot of younger people in the workplace nowadays”.

For Fletcher, one of the most important ingredients for a healthy mind is routine. That includes “building in a little bit of time and little bit of space for yourself”.

“It’s more about how you plan your work schedule. Never have a meeting straight after another meeting. Take five or 10 minutes to decompress,” he said.

“Empathy is such an important word in this conversation, to help people understand they aren’t going to get discriminated against because of their mental health. The more empathy I can teach, the better.”

His final tip is to “always have something to look forward to every three months, whether it’s a concert or a weekend away”.

Do you treat your car better than your mental health?

Fletcher concluded that we all need to be a little more aware of the importance of taking care of our mental health.

“When you’re driving along the motorway and a light flashes on the dashboard, most people will pull the car over and bring it to a garage. If you’ve got chicken pox, the first thing you probably do is go to your doctor or a pharmacy.

“If you see a sign you’ve got a problem with your mental health, what do you do? Absolutely nothing.

“We look after our cars better than we do our own mental health. How crazy is that?”

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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