Mental Health Awareness Days – A Force for Good or Box-ticking?

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Mental Health: You Own It, Or Do You?

There is no shortage of mental health awareness days and campaigns, with companies across the UK recognising or getting involved with them. They include Stress Awareness Month in April, the Mental Health Foundation’s Mental Health Awareness Week in May, World Suicide Prevention Day in September, World Mental Health Day in October, and Anti-Bullying Week in November.

Do these initiatives work, particularly in a workplace setting? What are the benefits to employees, and is there anything more that companies should be doing?

Why Mental Health-Related Awareness Days Are Important

The consensus among most professionals is that the more we talk about mental health, and the more we reduce the stigma, the better we will be individually and as a society at dealing with mental health issues.

So, as mental health awareness campaigns give us a reason to talk about mental health, they do offer benefits. They extend the reach of the messaging, too, often getting to people who might be struggling.

In terms of workplace settings, mental health awareness initiatives put the issue on the agenda, something that is especially important in those companies that don’t give mental health enough consideration.

Are there any negatives to mental health awareness initiatives? Is participating in these initiatives enough for companies and the responsibilities they have to their employees?

Are there Negatives to Mental Health Awareness Campaigns?

There are some who say mental health awareness days, weeks, and campaigns result in some people self-diagnosing that they are mentally ill when what is really happening is that they are experiencing the normal ups and downs of everyday life.

People who take this view say this situation is not beneficial to the individual, and it can put unnecessary strain on the health service when people who are not mentally ill seek treatment. Taking that a stage further, if this view was proven to be valid, there could be higher levels of mental health-related workplace absence than there should be.

Is this something to be concerned about in relation to mental health awareness campaigns?

When you speak to any mental health professional, they will tell you that more people than usual seek help immediately after a celebrity talks about mental health issues. It seems a reasonable assumption that some of those people could be misinterpreting the ebbs and flows of daily life and incorrectly assuming they are suffering from a mental health issue.

However, it is hard to think of a situation where people would be discouraged from seeking professional advice for a potential physical health problem. In fact, most medical professionals strongly support people getting advice if they have any concerns, however minor.

Just think how many cancers over the years have been detected and treated because awareness campaigns prompted individuals to seek help because they felt something wasn’t quite right. Could you imagine those people not coming forward because society was concerned about those who didn’t have anything wrong self-diagnosing and taking up valuable appointment times in an under-pressure NHS?

That would be horrific. So, why should it be any different for mental health?

Of course, it shouldn’t be any different. Just because some people categorise the normal trials of life as being a potential mental health issue doesn’t mean we should stop raising awareness. Instead, we should continue trying to reach as many people as possible to tell them that support is available, that they might not be okay, and that seeking help or advice is the right thing to do.

Therefore, the “too much awareness of mental health” argument doesn’t stack up.

So, the answer has to be no for the question about whether there are negatives to mental health awareness campaigns. They are overwhelmingly positive.

That said, there is a more important question for businesses to answer: is taking part in mental health awareness campaigns enough?

The Problems with Businesses and Mental Health Awareness Campaigns

While there are fantastic examples of companies taking mental health seriously, there are many more that don’t. That doesn’t stop them from taking part in awareness campaigns, though.

The problem, therefore, is not the mental health awareness campaign itself, but rather the approach of some of those companies that take part.

The reality is that mental health is a growing challenge in the modern workforce. Simply putting up a couple of posters around the office and sending out a few emails is not enough. Mental health is not a box-ticking exercise.

There is an authenticity problem that companies have to deal with, too, where companies pay lip service to mental health issues a few days of the year on social media but don’t do anything else.

The Challenge of Behavioural Change

The real challenge of workplace mental health is not awareness. Instead, it is behavioural change as raising awareness of mental health is not the same as dealing with the issues, i.e., awareness doesn’t always lead to changes in behaviour.

Much of the global burden of disease is associated with behaviors—overeating, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and physical inactivity—that people recognize as health-harming and yet continue to engage in, even when undesired consequences emerge. To date, interventions aimed at changing such behaviors have largely encouraged people to reflect on their behaviors. These approaches are often ineffectual, which is in keeping with the observation that much human behavior is automatic, cued by environmental stimuli, resulting in actions that are largely unaccompanied by conscious reflection.

This applies to mental health behavioural change too. For mental health sufferers, they may be aware of mental health issues, but don’t realise their knowledge applies to what they are feeling and going through. For those who recognise potential mental health issues in those around them, they might be hesitant to raise the issue for fear of the response, or they might not feel they can provide the support that will be required once the issue is out in the open.

Businesses and Behavioural Change

For businesses and workplace mental health, we have to face up to the truth: awareness campaigns are easy, while doing things that can make real and lasting change is hard. Those things include implementing long-term campaigns, initiatives, and structural changes to address mental health issues in the workplace and promote good mental health and wellbeing.

Let’s look at one example that has been the subject of significant discussion over the past year because of the Covid-19 pandemic – working from home. Many employees don’t like the situation we have been forced to work under during the pandemic with compulsory working from home, but many also don’t want to go back to the way it was before, where there was very little home-based working.

One of the reasons for this is that working from home for part of the week is good for your mental health and wellbeing. Facilitating this desire from employees to continue working from home requires a different way of thinking as well as structural change in the business.

Examples like this would positively improve workplace mental significantly more than taking part in annual awareness campaigns.

Real Commitment on Mental Health

What we need is a real commitment from employers to mental health. That commitment needs to include an ongoing programme as well as structural change that lasts 365 days of the year, instead of just a handful.

In doing the above, we need to move beyond the message that mental health is real. It is even worth moving beyond messages about eliminating the stigma of mental health in the workplace and describing what mental health problems look like (anxiety, depression, stress, etc.).

Instead, businesses should be looking at why mental health is such an issue in the workplace, and they should be exploring how they can do something about it.

It Makes Business Sense

There is a moral duty on companies to take workplace mental health more seriously. Reputational factors are an important consideration as well, but there is also the fact that good workplace mental health is good for business. More specifically, good workplace mental health can improve productivity.

In summary, there are many reasons why mental health awareness campaigns are both effective and worthwhile.  Equally, there are lots of reasons why we should be doing so much more, particularly in the workplace.

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