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Creating a safe and inclusive workplace for people living with a mental health condition

This article is part of the Filling your Cup series to improve the health of people working in the community mental health sector.

Brought to you by WayAhead Workplaces and Mental Health Coordinating Council and written by Steph Thompson, WayAhead Workplaces Lead.

The workplace mental health sector has grown in awareness and understanding of the role the workplace plays in preventing psychological distress.

In previous articles, we have touched on principles including leadership and work design as protective factors to prevent occupationally triggered mental distress.

On top of the importance of using workplace culture to promote wellbeing, another key consideration is how to create a safe and inclusive environment for people living with mental health conditions.

It is important to note here, that living with a mental health condition is not the same as experiencing mental distress.

From time to time a person may experience distress as a part of the episodic nature of their condition, or due to the impact of life events, but often people live well in the community, can thrive and maintain their health and wellbeing despite living with a mental health condition.

Preventative, psychological safety is still extremely important and there are some other considerations to keep in mind around inclusion.

Workplace culture as a psychosocial risk

Workplace culture is a psychosocial risk for everyone, but especially for people experiencing mental distress or trauma.

Considering the context we are in right now, the world has gone through collective trauma and a lot of people are under more significant stress than usual and/or experiencing burn out.

Workplace culture can be complex to manifest, measure and change, and influencing culture can take time, persistence and commitment from leaders.

A culture that is safe for people experiencing distress or trauma is one that normalises all different human experiences.

Leaders give permission through leading by example and through challenging stigmas.

Embedding wellbeing principles into business as usual can be a meaningful way to demonstrate that the workplace is a safe place for people to be themselves.

Ways to embed wellbeing into workplace practice

Trauma and work

When people have experienced trauma, it impacts their ability to process the world around them and may mean that they have a more active prefrontal cortex.

This can affect a person’s ability to cohesively process information and make a person be more likely to enter a flight or fight state.

They may perceive danger more easily and not be able to tap into their problem solving or logical mind.

For people working in the mental health sector and potentially supporting clients who have experienced trauma, they may themselves experience what is called vicarious trauma.

It can be useful for managers and colleagues alike to recognise this experience and use this lens when supporting and communicating with their peers.

Principles to keep in mind to take a trauma informed approach in the workplace

MAINTAIN CONSISTENCY

During these uncertain times, where almost everything has changed, keeping as much as possible consistent can minimise the cognitive load for anyone, but especially those with compromised load.

THE HUMBLE CHECK IN

Keeping communication frequent and holding space for team members to share where they are at can be a helpful way for employees to feel safe. Even if in the past it has not been the norm for there to be frequent one on ones, it might be helpful for managers to increase these check ins and keep communication opportunities frequent. This is especially true when working from home and the incidental in person conversations and non verbal cues are non existent.

BOUNDARY MANAGEMENT

When people are in their reptilian brain and have stress hormones flooding their body, they are less likely to be making healthy decisions for their overall lifestyle. Supporting team members to prioritise what they need to look after their own wellbeing can make a huge difference for people who have experienced trauma. Lead by example and work towards cultivating a culture where people prioritise their health and wellbeing and remind team members of the need to take breaks, make healthy choices and take care of themselves.

CLEAR DIRECTION AND COMMUNICATION

Probably the most significant principle to remember at a time like this when people have been through collective trauma, is to keep conversations clear and to the point. Attempt to leave little room open for individual interpretation. This might go against how a manager has previously worked and require a bit of extra consideration. Give employees clear deadlines, outline the details of a task as much as possible. Give context as to why changes need to be made and how they will be implemented. Talking straight and being specific means the cognitive load for the employee is less likely to become overwhelmed.

NORMALISING DIFFERENT WAYS OF PROCESSING INFORMATION

Challenging previously celebrated yet alienating and possibly unsafe leadership styles by celebrating and normalising all personality types and neurodiversity. While some people may have a more direct approach to work whereby they thrive in group work and in meetings, they have an extraverted style and measure success through outputs, other people might process information after a meeting, through visual means, one on one catch ups or through writing things down. Some people need to fidget, make notes, draw or close their eyes when thinking critically. Celebrate these differences, recognise that traditional assumptions of output and productivity might not necessarily be the best way employees can add value in their work.

There is a lot to unpack on this subject of inclusion and psychosocial safety.

If there is a one key message here to take away it is to assume good intent and lead with openness.

It can be easy when we are under stress to feel cynical and negative.

If someone in your zoom meeting is looking down, don’t assume they aren’t listening, as they could just be taking notes.

They might find the eye contact overwhelming.

There could be all kinds of explanations, and assuming something positive will not only open up your own mind but can start to influence culture and shift stigmatising attitudes.

You can find out more about this subject by checking out the In Conversation by WayAhead Workplaces on Psychosocial risk in the workplace through the lens of lived experience

This article is one of a series of four in the WayAhead Workplaces and Mental Health Coordinating Council ‘Filling your Cup’ resource.

For more information on everything workplace health and wellbeing, check out the WayAhead Workplaces site, and sign up to the free e-newsletter.

Find out more about the ‘Filling your Cup’ series

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