What does good mental health look like then?
There’s a massive fallacy that good mental health is just not having bad mental health. We often think bad mental health is feeling sad or angry or upset. These emotions maybe don’t feel great, but we shouldn’t just label them as bad. Similarly, we shouldn’t label being happy as good mental health – not least because no one can be happy all the time. Instead, I think the best way to understand good mental health is as an integration of all those different emotional states. There’s no judgement on some being better than others. We should be flexible and adaptable, rather than seeing good mental health as a fixed state.
To help people achieve this, you’ve focused on workplaces. Why is that?
Workplaces are simply the most effective way of reaching people. Traditionally, mental health support – especially coaching, which is primarily what we do – has been almost exclusively for business leaders. There’s a broad middle section of people who have been left unaware or unable to access mental health support. Reaching out to them made sense on that level, but also because people are spending more time at work. They are seeing their workplace as a community, where they can find purpose and meaning in life, so workplaces are taking a more active role in society. They’re not just places you rock up to, check into and check out of each day. People are building long-lasting relationships at work – all while businesses are becoming more active around social causes like mental health.
What practical things can someone do to make their workplace better?
The absolutely fundamental thing is: prioritise your own mental health and well being. Put your own oxygen mask on first, as it were. If you’re a manager, taking actions that prioritise how you feel is great role modelling. And tell people exactly what you’re doing. This will make them feel like they can take similar decisions for themselves. The second thing is to ask people questions about how they feel. Practise talking about mental health by exploring your own. Then you can make these sort of check-in questions a regular part of the working day. But you don’t have to be a manager to contribute to this sort of cultural change. Just start talking about your mental health. I don’t mean sharing traumatic childhood events in an all-staff email. I mean letting people know that you’re leaving at 5.30 today to go for a run because you always feel good after a run. Even just using the phrase ‘mental health’ in a meeting can be helpful.
Long hours, job insecurity, the unfulfilling nature of a lot of work – some might say businesses create many of our current problems around mental health. Can a workplace conversation ever be more than a sticking plaster on a much deeper issue?
Done properly, I think conversations about mental health can lead to significant change. They make mental health permissible in a workplace and, if the business is genuinely listening to the conversations, it can learn from them. Imagine you have a stressed team of people. If they are empowered to talk about their stress, and their managers are empowered to listen, a business is going to have a whole new data set around their staff’s emotions and what they want or need. That could help them make the right decisions to improve things. Mental health at work isn’t just about lunchtime yoga sessions. It can change a business’s systems.
Last one then, James. Why do men find it harder to talk about this stuff?
I can speak about this one from personal experience too. At 25, I was doing what most men do in this country: going out at the weekend, getting drunk, chatting football and trying to meet girls. Classic laddish behaviour. Taking the piss out of each other with your mates definitely has its benefits, but that sort of environment isn’t always conducive to taking a risk and opening up –occasionally it might all pour out of you in the smoking area of the club at 3am, but that’s about it. There’s rarely a sober situation in which to discuss this stuff.
I’ve learnt since then – because I’ve seen it first hand – that men are no less able to talk about how they feel than anyone else. We’re not under a curse that says we can’t talk about our feelings. We sometimes just need to find different spaces, different places or different people to comfortably have these conversations with. For me, journaling was very powerful because it gave me a private, confidential space to start articulating my feelings. I don’t think I ever used the word ‘anxious’ until I was about 27. But we are all richly complex creatures and learning this new language opens up a different part of the world. It can help us see ourselves in ways we might not have seen before.