It goes without saying that 2020 has been a dreadful year. Although I’ve enjoyed my work and have been lucky not to share the suffering that so many people have endured, I still say that this year has been hard. I have had to work hard to maintain my mental health through the stresses and strains thrown up by Covid-19, and as BOOST&Co’s organisational psychologist, I have helped my colleagues to do the same.

While thinking about what to write for World Mental Health Day 2020, however, I found myself feeling more positive than ever before. The reason is that, despite all that has happened, something wonderful has occurred: our mental health has become something that we can speak about openly. As someone who hid her diagnosis of bipolar disorder for almost two decades, I still pinch myself when I think of how discussions around depression, mania, insomnia, anxiety, compulsive behaviours and more have emerged into the open. I honestly believed I would never see such a revolution in my lifetime.

I want us to make the most of this positive change. In this series of articles, I’m going to cover the following areas:

  1. Why mental health is no longer a difficult subject: it is important that we understand the change, so we don’t slide back into our old ways when the pandemic is over;
  2. Practical tips for getting everyone into the habit of using the mental health spectrum to judge our mental wellbeing;
  3. Why we can often spot changes in our mental health most clearly against the backdrop of our workplace; and
  4. Understanding how changes in our mental health can seem to others at work, to help us to convey the right message when we need to speak up about how we’re feeling.

At the end of this article, you can find practical ways to access help with mental ill health right now.

Part 3: Spotting changes in your mental health in the context of work

(Scroll down for part 2, published last week)

Sometimes, it can be helpful to judge our mental health against the backdrop of the workplace. Why is this? First, we need to keep well at work, for the sake of both ourselves and those around us. Second, work is a place where we can view ourselves objectively, because we aren’t there all the time. This helps us to recognise how our mental health might be affecting us, before we reach any sort of crisis.

Everyone who has a job needs to know how mental ill health can rear its head in the workplace. That’s a bold statement, but mental ill health can affect us all, and even if we never experience it ourselves, we should be able to spot the signs in others. For a long time, in my previous role in HR, I thought only about what I could do to support people with mental ill health. Now that I have shifted towards organisational psychology, I see that this topic is relevant to the entire workforce.

This isn’t a question of becoming an expert in the subject: mental ill health is often hard to recognise in ourselves, and its causes and cures can be difficult to pinpoint, even for professionals. However, my experience shows that when an employee’s behaviour and/or performance declines, for no obvious reason, those around them usually think the worst of them first. All too frequently, I have seen staff branded “lazy”, “unreliable” or “disengaged”, although it has transpired that the person in question is, in fact, suffering from mental ill health.

In the UK, it is an individual’s responsibility to tell their employer if they are unwell (although this is not an obligation), whether the problem is physical or mental. This puts the onus on the employer to help people to work through their illness, but often, the individual does not know that their mental health is deteriorating until it is too late, especially if this is the first time they have become mentally unwell. Their performance and/or behaviour will have dipped to a point where their reputation with their manager, their peers and even business leaders has been damaged, seemingly beyond repair.

Watch out for these warning signs

There are some clear indicators that both the individual and those around them can look for. These can be quite easy to spot against the backdrop of the workplace.

Sleep patterns

We all have our own sleep patterns and we know what works for us. If your sleep pattern has changed, and you are concerned that the change is not a positive one, this could be a sign that you aren’t feeling quite yourself. It can alter suddenly, in response to a particular incident, or over time.

Changes that can happen to sleep include:

You get the picture. The fact that there is a change is the most important point.

Lockdown will have changed some of our sleep patterns for the better. Several of my colleagues are sleeping for longer than they did previously, and they wake up feeling great.

Energy levels and concentration

Perhaps linked to sleep, but perhaps not, a change in our energy levels can mean that our mental health isn’t what we would like it to be. Changes in energy levels can go both ways. Becoming less energetic, even lethargic, can be a sign that we’re down. Becoming more energetic, even frenetic, can mean that we’re anxious. Feeling a little down, or a little anxious, is part and parcel of normal life, and living through a pandemic can easily create either feeling. Annoyingly, you can even experience both at the same time.

These changes in our energy levels often have a knock-on effect on our ability to focus and to concentrate. Believe it or not, this too can go both ways. Yet again, we’re looking for changes. Even increased concentration levels can be linked with mental ill health, particularly if you are able to focus well in one area, but then neglect others. I have seen people in the workplace become amazing at the things they find easiest, but very bad at everything else, as they put all their eggs in one basket before a breakdown in their mental health.

Increased energy levels can sometimes be coupled with a rising sense of stress, even leading to panic. This happens when our fight/flight/freeze mechanism goes into overdrive. If the pressure we usually feel in carrying out our work starts to flip into stress and, beyond this, into fear, then this mechanism may be misbehaving. We may notice physical symptoms – anything from sweaty palms and cold feet to an upset stomach and even raised glands without a temperature. Again, it’s the change that is important.

Relationships at work

Quite often, a dip in our mental health is played out in how we relate to others at work. Again, you’re looking for changes. Have you noticed that:

If you are experiencing these changes, it may be a sign that you are tipping towards the red end of the mental health spectrum, which we learned to use in last week’s instalment of this article (scroll down to read it). Anger and frustration are often overlooked as aspects of mental ill health, especially if they are seen in people who are typically considered to be more aggressive than others, but they are part and parcel of the whole.

Diet and exercise

Lockdown has prompted many of us to change our eating and exercising habits. The initial problems we had in obtaining our usual groceries from supermarkets led us to discover new things or go back to old favourites. We may have chosen to spend more time cooking, or we may have accepted ready-meals where once we prided ourselves on making everything from scratch.

This is all well and good, but we may also have experienced a change in our appetite. A lot of people are joking about the lockdown pounds they have gained, but this is something more. If your appetite has changed and you aren’t happy with the change, this may indicate a dip in your mental health. It isn’t all about putting on weight, either; losing weight may also signal a decline in your mental health, especially if your BMI indicated that you didn’t need to lose any weight in the first place.

Exercise is another key area to watch for changes, and here, there is a difference between changes that may cause our mental health to deteriorate and the signs that it already has. This can show up in the workplace if you have to do a lot of exercise in order to cope. You may feel that you need to walk your 10,000 steps before you start your day, or that you can’t wind down after work unless you go to the gym each night and follow a strict routine. If you’re using exercise to cope at work, or if a lack of exercise is making life harder, these changes can highlight a dip in your mental wellbeing.

In the final part of this article (check back on Friday 30), I will look at how others view mental ill health in the workplace, to remind us how it can first appear in this context and to give us some important tools for helping each other through. For now, if you feel that you need help, there are plenty of resources available – just scroll down to the details at the bottom of this page.

Part 2: How to use the mental health spectrum – make it a healthy habit

(Scroll down for part 1, published earlier this month)

There is an amazingly easy way to start thinking about our mental health. During lockdown, we may have noticed changes in ourselves, leading us to wonder whether we’re doing as well as we might be. However, we don’t need lockdown to justify this exercise. Simply get used to putting yourself, every so often, on the spectrum of mental health. If you regularly weigh yourself, do this at the same time.

The diagram below is a simple one. Although there are lots of symptoms of mental ill health, all that matters is that you can put yourself somewhere on this spectrum.

Only you are qualified to use this spectrum for yourself. The comedian Micky Flanagan jokes about how women say to each other: “How are you feeling? How are you feeling in yourself?”, which makes me howl with laughter. I’ve seen the same from Peter Kay, and he makes it sound daft. But it is a sensible question, because it means: “How do you honestly judge you are feeling, without any external influence?” Without giving reasons, or even excuses, as to why you feel a certain way, put your finger on the spectrum. This is the first step to considering your mental health.

I love this spectrum because it doesn’t show anything quantitative: for example, it doesn’t ask you to rate your mental health out of ten. What is a rating of zero and what is a rating of ten, anyway, if you have to give it a score? Does ten mean “blindingly ecstatic, never been better, could run out into the street to give the neighbours a rendition of ‘Hooray for Hollywood’”, or is it “I’ve just had a nice cup of tea, my biscuit stayed whole when I dunked it and I’m about to fire up the iPlayer”?

Trust your instinct to tell you if you’re coping

I’m being flippant, but if you’re asked to score your mental health out of ten, that is exactly what you need to ask yourself: “What is a ten, what is a zero, and if I say seven, what does that mean?” With this numberless, barely defined scale, however, you don’t have to think about any of that. You can even take away the words and just look at the colours. You’re doing this for your own benefit, so you can point where you choose.

You don’t have to think about it too deeply and you certainly don’t need to compare yourself with anyone else (remember that there is no clear definition of “good” or “bad” mental health). For some people, nothing but the green end of the spectrum feels good enough, and that is right for them. Others are happy with the yellow. Having been all the way to the red end a few times, I am delighted to put my finger on “coping”!

The key is that you take the time to consider whether your mental health is in the green area; if not, you can then start thinking about why this might be. If you are sitting on the right of this spectrum – anywhere to the right of “coping” – then you might consider that your mental health isn’t as good as it could be. You may be able to identify a change that has brought you to this point, but it may have been a slow shift.

Part 1: Mental health is no longer a difficult subject – let’s keep it that way

There are many cultural reasons why we shy away from the topic of mental health. These aren’t to be ignored in the wider world, but I will stick to the subject against the backdrop of the workplace, so that I can look at the practical reasons. These include the following:

Why it really is good – and normal – to talk

Previously, because of these issues, even the most enlightened among us wanted to either solve someone’s mental ill health with a neat fix or help the sufferer to push it away. If the person travelling towards the wrong end of the spectrum didn’t know what they were facing, we wanted to haul them off that train and on to the other platform (I’m warming to this theme).

We saw every issue of mental ill health as potentially severe, and as something we shouldn’t touch because we weren’t the expert. We assumed that if someone suffered depression once, that made them “depressive”, and that those with anxiety were either unpredictable and therefore dangerous or, alternatively, “just a nervy type”. It’s no surprise that this has been a difficult area for such a long time. As someone with bipolar disorder, I learned to take this as read and keep quiet.

Now for the great news! During the pandemic, we have seen an unbelievable level of openness around mental health and ill health. I’ve seen adverts dealing with the topic, I’ve seen organisations going all-out to help people who are suffering and I’ve seen storylines in popular TV shows reinforcing the message that we all experience mental ill health.

Sometimes we’re a little up, sometimes a little down, and that’s normal. Sometimes we’re a lot up, and sometimes we’re a lot down, and although this may indicate mental ill health of a more severe nature, we have learned that this is still normal. Wherever we are on the spectrum at any time of the day, on any day of the week, at any point in our lives, we can share our mental health levels with others – and these conversations are normal.

Help is available – here’s how to access it

If you’re worried about your mental health, you don’t need to justify yourself to anyone. If changes in your life are worrying you, please ask for help. I would be a statistic had I not done so 20 years ago, and a few times since, which is why I can say with authority that not one of the following services is waiting for you to be in crisis before they deem you to be ready for help.

• Visit this page each Friday in October for the latest instalment of this four-part article
Email Heather or connect with her on LinkedIn
• Read Heather Bingham’s advice on coping with Covid-19: on leadership styles, staying resilient and working from home

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