The mask of mental health

There are still are large number of people who don’t come forward to ask for help. DEBRA BRODOWSKI takes a look at why individuals tend to suffer in silence and how they often “mask” their distress.

In January 2016, Lifeline noted that “for the first time in its 52-year history, Lifeline received more than a million requests for help from everyday Australians in 2015, including the busiest ever fourmonth period for the 13 11 14 telephone line” toward the end of 2015. The key statistics for Lifeline in 2015 were as follows:

  • More than one million contact points for crisis support in 2015
  • A call to 13 11 14 every 32.2 seconds
  • An average of more than 2600 calls each day

Whilst there is some comfort in these statistics for people coming forward and seeking support when facing a crisis or for those with suicidal thoughts, there are still are large number of people who don’t come forward to ask for help. Such individuals tend to suffer in silence and often “mask” their distress.

Although the prevalence of mental health in the workplace is well documented, there still exists much fear among people about coming forward and asking for help. Underlying these fears are some common beliefs such as:

  • Talking to someone might have negative repercussions in terms of career opportunities, being treated differently, being allocated less complex work etc;
  • Perceiving that asking for support is a sign of weakness;
  • Talking to someone won’t improve or change the situation;

Strong feelings such as shame, embarrassment or anxiety also prevent people from reaching out. Having an organisational culture where people are educated about mental health in the workplace, where mental health and wellbeing is openly spoken about and where the leaders are supportive of mental health initiatives goes a long way to gently encouraging someone to come forward if they are not travelling so well. As a first step educating all staff on the early warning signs of a mental health concern and having a conversation with someone you are concerned about is a good starting point.

So what are some of the masked signs and symptoms of distress that managers and peers are able to look out for:

  • Increase in intake of caffeine and ‘energy booster’ drinks;
  • Increase in intake of sugar and ‘comfort’ foods;
  • Use of drugs and alcohol to cope;
  • Use of over the counter and prescription medication for physical health concerns;
  • Making excuses for their behavior at work, such as errors, forgetfulness;
  • Displaying moods that are perceived to be more ‘acceptable’, such as an increase in anger or irritability;
  • Being overly upbeat and positive in manner;
  • Excessive working hours but with no noticeable improvement in productivity or performance;
  • Sudden decline in work performance.

How are these differences observed in an employee/ colleague at work? The importance of being a supportive leader or team member is paramount here. Knowing your employee/ colleague well means that you are likely to have a gauge on what is considered to be “normal” behaviour. Therefore, in the event that a change in behaviour is noticed, and it is not considered to be a “one off” (you’ve noticed that they have not been themselves for a couple of weeks now, and it’s just not like them), then it may be appropriate to have a conversation to check in and see if the employee/ colleague is ok, or if there is anything more going on.

In the event that your observations have been correct, you have seen through the “mask”, and the conversation has led to your employee/ colleague opening up and mentioning that they are “not ok”, then it doesn’t matter if the issue that is causing them distress is work or personal related, there is a responsibility for you to offer support. This could take many forms:

  • Encouraging a discussion with HR about the additional support the workplace may be able to offer;
  • Accessing EAP if your workplace has a program in place;
  • Encouraging a visit to their treating GP who may be able to provide referrals to a Psychologist under the Medicare Mental Health Care Plan, or to a Psychiatrist for medication.

Most importantly, it is important to offer support, and gently encourage action to be taken by the employee/ colleague. Leaving a mental health issue unaddressed rarely leads to recovery and in fact can lead to a mental health issue escalating. As a workplace, offering suggestions for external support to be provided, whilst providing support in the workplace, demonstrates positive steps toward addressing a mental health issue.

Contact us for more information on our Managing Mental Health in the Workplace Training run by our consulting company the Centre for Corporate Health.