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MENTAL HEALTH IS ABOUT WELLNESS NOT ILLNESS

It is highly likely that you will either manage or work with a colleague experiencing mental ill-health at some point in your career – whether you know it or not. Maybe it is you who is living with and managing mental ill-health, everyday.

I do, everyday, manage my own mental health, for if I ignore this important part of my well-being I am likely to plummet back into the ill-health that comes with the personal and workplace trauma I have lived through.

Mental ill-health is more prevalent than many people realise. Many of us live with the stigma and embarrassment that comes with mental ill-health and tend to keep our pain to ourselves. More and more, through the support processes I provide, I am hearing the stories of those of us who come to work everyday and courageously manage and succeed whilst living with their own mental health challenges.

Do you ever wonder how common mental ill-health is in our Australian workplaces?

Check out some of these facts courtesy of safe work Australia, ABS and Beyondblue.

Work-related mental ill-health conditions take a huge toll on worker health and productivity, with the negative impact felt by individuals themselves, their families, and colleagues.

On average each year between 2012–13 to 2016–17p[1]:

  • 6 per cent of all serious workers compensation claims were for work-related mental ill-health conditions.
  • 7,140 Australians were compensated for work-related mental ill-health conditions.
  • 92 per cent of serious work-related mental ill-health condition claims were attributed to mental stress.
  • 42 per cent of serious work-related mental ill-health condition claims were made by males, 58 per cent by females.

Note: ‘Serious’ workers’ compensation claims relate to those claims where the injury or illness has resulted in one or more weeks off work.

Generally, around 45% of Australians aged between 16 and 85 will experience a mental ill-health at some point in their life, while one in five Australian adults will experience a mental ill-health in any given year.[2]

A worker may develop mental ill-health prior to employment or during employment. Most workers successfully manage their illness without it impacting on their work. Some may require workplace support for a short period of time, while a minority will require ongoing workplace strategies.

It is often presumed that a worker’s mental ill-health develops outside of the workplace. However, an ‘unhealthy’ work environment or a workplace incident can cause considerable stress and exacerbate, or contribute to, the development of mental ill-health.

The main causes of serious mental ill-health condition claims were:

  • Work pressure – 21 per cent
  • Work related harassment or bullying – 20 per cent, and
  • Exposure to workplace or occupational violence – 10 per cent.

It is estimated that untreated mental ill-health conditions cost Australian workplaces approximately $10.9 billion per year.  This comprises $4.7 billion in absenteeism, $6.1 billion in presenteeism and $146 million in compensation claims.[3]

It is clear that the cost of ignoring the problem is far greater than the cost of developing and implementing strategies to create a safe and healthy workplace.

Understanding mental health and wellbeing

Mental health is an expression we use regularly and is commonly misunderstood in that it is implied to be a sign of illness rather than wellness.

According to the World Health Organization, mental health is “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

When we misuse the term ‘mental-health’, I believe we are unconsciously taking away choice and control from each of us by assuming that there is only a certain percentage of the population that needs to consider their mental health.  In reality, we are each responsible for, and to, ourselves.

100% of the time, and this includes building mental health and managing illness should we experience it.

A useful description of mental health and how we each live with mental health is Corey Keyes’ mental health continuum model, below, which illustrates mental health exists on a continuum from positive healthy functioning at one end through to severe symptoms of mental ill-health at the other.   We are all on this continuum each and every day, and may slide left or right depending on responses to stressors and our circumstances and well-being.

What I like about this diagram is how it show us that we can move between the stages under our own ‘steam’ or with support and we need not be stuck in any stage.

We all, at some stage in our life, have or will experience instances of mental ill-health, whether it be in the yellow, orange or red zones as indicated in the diagram above.  At each of the zones in the continuum, we have choices and actions we can take to build our wellness or to move left toward the green.

At the green end of the continuum, people are well, showing resilience and high levels of wellbeing. This doesn’t mean that there are no stressors in their life, what they have is processes, skills and connections to support them when under pressure.

Moving into the yellow area, people may start to have difficulty coping.  At this point we often resort to old comfort habits, like overeating or alcohol, we get cranky and sleep eludes us. Some days our jaw or shoulders ache and we can feel the tension in our chest.  If we are aware of our unhelpful habits and signs of lessening mental health, at this stage we can implement strategies and techniques to cope.

In the orange area, people have more difficulty coping and symptoms may increase in severity and frequency.  Here is where the feelings of anger and anxiety is heightened, we start to withdraw from others and struggle to see anything positive in our days. Usually, at this stage, we need support from others, which may include professional help to a colleague taking us on regular exercise activities.

At the red end of the continuum, people are likely to be experiencing severe symptoms, including;  angry outbursts, panic attacks, unable to perform duties, debilitating fatigue, and may be at risk of self-harm or suicide.  If we or someone we know reaches the stage of excessive anxiety and depression, we need professional intervention.

What can we do at each stage?

Please note, this diagram and article is for information only, not a diagnosis of mental ill-health, if you are concerned, I recommend you seek assistance from a professional.

Taking Care of MY Mental Health

We each need to take responsibility for our own mental health by considering the following aspects of our lives:

  • Our work
  • Our lifestyle
  • Our social relationships
  • Our thoughts

Our Work:

All employees, including managers, can adopt some common strategies to help maintain a healthy workplace in their work roles. The top ten tips (‘Taking care of your mental health: A guide for employees’ Headsup.org.au) for working in a mentally healthy way:

  1. Limit working extra hours
  2. Schedule meetings in core work hours
  3. Take regular breaks
  4. Try not to take work home
  5. Take holiday leave
  6. Set realistic deadlines and deliver on them
  7. Sometimes it’s OK to say “No”
  8. Have a technology switch-off period
  9. Make use of EAP
  10. Explore suitable flexible working arrangements

Our Lifestyle:

Eating healthy, exercising regularly, relaxation, getting enough sleep, and avoiding harmful levels of alcohol and other drugs can help you keep your mental health on track, manage symptoms of anxiety and depression and improve your over-all wellbeing.

Our social relationships:

Healthy relationships support mental health while social isolation and poor relationships can be risk factors for mental ill-health conditions like anxiety and depression.

Social connection through good, open and regular communication is paramount to building strong supportive relationships.

Ways to stay connected:

  • Call a friend or family member for a chat and catchup
  • Go to community activity to meet neighbours and new acquaintances
  • Smile and say hello to strangers you cross paths with
  • Limit time in front of TV or computer or playing online games
  • Join networking or special interest groups
  • Volunteer
  • Take kids or dogs to playground
  • Talk to the person at the desk next to you
  • Help others

Our Thoughts:

Sometimes the way we talk to ourselves is unhelpful and can build on the experience of not coping. We all have that ‘little voice’ that can goad us and demoralise us very quickly, some of us even say these thoughts out loud. Our success and health is often dependent on how we talk to ourselves; notice your unhelpful thoughts, name them and neutralise them.

Some of your thoughts you may notice include:

  • Black & white inflexible thinking: “If I don’t do this right now, it will never get done and this will never work”
  • What-ifs: “What if I take this chance and fail? What if it doesn’t work? What if they laugh at me?”
  • Downward spiral of negatives: “If I say anything, nobody will do anything, and then I will become the target and then my career will be over and the other person will get away with it all.”
  • Leaping to conclusions: “My colleague didn’t say good morning, they are obviously angry with me about something”
  • Over-generalising: “I never get what I want. Nothing ever happens.”
  • Looking too far ahead: “If this doesn’t get finished then the whole project will fail”
  • Strong uncompromising statements: “I should”, “I have to”, “I always”, “I must”, “I never”
  • Unkind or mean to oneself: “I’m a failure”, “I’m useless”, “I am not good enough”, “I am a fraud” “I will never get this”

We can better support ourselves through noticing these thoughts and either reframing them to identify ‘what matters’ underneath that thought, our values, or we can consciously ‘let them go through to the keeper’ by not focusing and ruminating on the thought.

Ask yourself:

  • If a close friend said this, what is important to them and what would I tell them?
  • If my child was saying these words, what would I like them to say instead?
  • Five years from now, will I see this the same?
  • What evidence do I have of this?
  • What else might be going on for them?
  • What is important that others know?
  • If I did this, what is the next step?
  • Where have I done something similar and succeeded?
  • What is one thing I could do right now?
  • How will I feel/think/be different when this works? And how can I be this now?

The moment we stop waiting for other’s to manage our mental health is the moment we are moving to being resilient and respondent in life. Robust mental health, like robust physical health, requires focussed attention, deliberate effort and skills development.

If you wish to remain in the ‘green zone’, you will need to plan and practice the skills, feel free to drop me a line for an example of a mental health plan that you are welcome to use, and share.

Thankyou and Take Care of You first!

[1] https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/doc/infographic-workplace-mental-health
[2] 4326.0 Australian Bureau of Statistics National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results 2007..
[3] ‘State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia Report’ TNS & Beyondblue 2014

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