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“Mental Health” Doesn’t Mean What it Used to Mean
We’re done admiring the problem, and it’s time to take some action

It came to me kind of out of the blue. I was at a conference discussing mental health in the workplace, barriers, programs, approaches… and that’s when it hit me. One of the biggest barriers to managing mental health in the workplace is the term “mental health” itself, and all of the baggage it carries.

We also spend a lot of time talking about removing the stigma from issues of mental wellness, but one problem with that – another barrier, if you will – is that the word “stigma” has a stigma of its own. Why should there be a stigma?

It seems like we spend a lot of our time on this issue talking about the baggage and the stigma and, in doing so, add to the baggage and give more weight to the notion that there should be a stigma attached.

Maybe it’s just time to get over it. To stop agonizing over the stigma. To stop worrying about being able to talk about problems.

In other words, never mind “mental health” – a term that few of us can really, specifically define anyway, and that makes most of us just want to tip-toe quietly backwards out of the room. Let’s instead just talk plainly about the problems that any one of us might, at some point, go through in our working lives. Such as the following:

  • Stress. I’m not going to try to give a medical definition, but most of us know what stress is. It isn’t just pressure or workload or challenges – those can all be positive things if you feel that you’re working hard and making progress, and getting support and recognition, and that you will achieve success. No. The stress we’re talking about happens when you have all the pressure to perform – either in your job description or in your own desire to do a good job – and you do not have the means to make progress or achieve success. Conflicting instructions. Lack of leadership. Micromanagement. A poisoned workplace culture. You are between a rock and hard place – that’s stress, and it will consume you.
  • Anxiety. Again, not medical definition, but we all know what anxiety is: it’s a constant feeling of uncertainty, of fear, of insecurity and of being under threat from any number of bad things that may come at you from your blindside. Am I doing a good job? Don’t know. Will I get shot down? Maybe. Is the rug going to pulled out from under me? Could happen any time. And so on.
  • Depression. I’ve heard it described as a dark cloud. A wet blanket. One thing we know for sure is that it can affect anyone at any time, and that it does affect many of us some of the time.
  • Work-life imbalance. I see this in terms of losing perspective. You’re working hard, you’re making progress, you spend more and more time and energy on the job and you start to lose sight of the big picture – the big picture being your life and your family and your friends. Alternatively, it can happen that it’s the job that loses sight of that big picture, and starts to make more and more demands on the people doing the work.
  • - Rough patches. We all go through them. Illness, or illness in the family. Bereavement. Relationship breakup. Financial setbacks. Life’s disappointments. And, to make matters worse, they have a way of coming in bunches.

These are among the issues that, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, account for about 30 percent of short- and long-term disability claims in Canada. And that number obviously does not include the “walking wounded” who are on the job, struggling with issues and trying to live by the old-school philosophy of “just suck it up.”

Actually, sucking it up is neither a solution nor an option. And before we even consider for a moment that a stigma should or could or might attach to the person struggling for the moment with life’s challenges, let’s look at how the World Health Organization defines the causes of workplace threats to wellness:

  • poor communication and management practices;
  • unclear tasks and organizational objectives;
  • low levels of support for employees;
  • limited participation in decision making;
  • low control over one’s area of work;
  • inflexible working conditions;
  • inadequate policies for health and safety of workers.

No problems talking about any of that. And I don’t see any stigmas, either.

The astonishing part of considering these issues in the context of the workplace is that the job – the one-third of our waking hours we dedicate to work – can play a large role in causing them, but it can play an even larger role in solving them.

Our jobs -- our work, career, profession, contribution to society, whatever – are such a large part of our lives that a happy, successful, rewarding, fulfilling job can just as easily spill over into the rest of our lives and make it, also, happy, successful, rewarding and fulfilling.

Let’s think about that side of the coin. We have the opportunity to build the “well workplace.”

You’ll also notice that, when we discuss these issues from the other-side-of-the-coin point of view, we are about a million miles away from talking about “mental health” and there isn’t a stigma in sight.

We’re done talking about it. We know what we have to do. It’s time to just do it.

If there is a topic that you would like me to write about, please email me at bill@penmore.com

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