I’ll admit I didn’t really understand what anxiety was – until I suffered from it, and it knocked me sideways.
If someone breaks their leg you can see it. You can imagine and understand how it might feel. The patient will be fully aware that it has happened, the symptoms and the treatment will be broadly the same, and recovery will happen over a fairly consistent timeframe.
Not so with anxiety. Ask 100 people about their experience of anxiety, the psychological and physiological effects, and they will give you 100 different answers. In my case I became aware of it through a mild panic attack followed by almost constant nausea, shakiness, tearfulness and lack of sleep. It passed in a few weeks but ocassionally rises to the surface again, when something rattles my stability, showing the same symptoms though generally less severe and passing more quickly. Ask the other 99 people and their experience, identifying their anxiety, how debilitating it is for them, their coping mechanisms, medical intervention, and the period of time it affects them will all be unique to them.
Almost as importantly, there is an inherent discomfort in talking about anything relating to mental health. To illustrate my point I will say that I wrote this blog two days ago and I have agonised over posting it because of my perceptions, accurate or otherwise, of the potential impact on my reputation and how prospective employers might view me. My anxiety is mild so I can only imagine how hard, and how isolating, it must be for those suffering more acutely.
And therein lies the problem. You can’t see anxiety in any consistent way so it’s difficult to identify from the outside. Equally it’s difficult for someone suffering from anxiety to stick their head above the parapet when they need help. And even if they are aware that they need help, and brave enough to ask for it, they may not know what that help looks like for them. So putting together a ‘one size fits all’ strategy as an employer is extremely challenging.
There is no one answer to this – you can’t put anxiety in a plaster cast for six weeks until it heals, and drugs might manage the symptoms but won’t cure the cause. The best answer we have is awareness and understanding – creating a culture and environment where employees can safely say that they are struggling, and have the ability to shape their support on an individual basis, when they need it, often in a way that means they can still contribute in the workplace.
Absence relating to mental health is on the increase and raising awareness is key. From a purely commercial point of view effective management can reduce costs of absence. More importantly, it’s simple humanity to do the right thing for your employees, show kindness, and enable support.
I don’t pretend to be saying anything new here, but that’s not what awareness is about. World Mental Health day is on 10th October and the 2017 theme is Mental Health in the Workplace. Why not take the opportunity to review whether your culture and policies encourage accessibility to mental health support, enable open discussion and accept that anyone can be susceptible.