Mental health support at work: Advice for employers
As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, PinkNews’ B2B & careers content lead Erik Niewiarowski shares their experience of living with depression and general anxiety disorder and how employers can support employees that struggle with mental health.
I remember the day vividly – it won’t be a day I will soon forget. One moment that has forever changed the trajectory of how I live my life, how I remember my past and how I hope for the future. As adults, we spend most of our time at work, so this moment has also shaped how and where I work.
Before I share, I need to share some context. I grew up in the American Midwest – Milwaukee, Wisconsin to be exact. Both of my parents emigrated to the United States from Poland as kids in the early 1960s. Their families were able to escape the Soviet-era authoritarian regime for that “American Dream.”
Even as a kid, I knew something was different, both with my sexuality and my mental state. My parents weren’t equipped to handle either. What I assumed to be temper tantrums and meltdowns were actually the first signs of panic attacks and anxiety. Instead of asking me what was wrong, I was called spoiled or too emotional for my own good. It’s not their fault, they thought what they were doing was the “right thing.” Mental health issues just weren’t a “thing” to them, nor was being queer. So I packed all of those feelings into a closet where they remained for nearly three decades.
Now back to that day. I remember waking up thinking it was going to be a rough one. I had just started sessions with a new therapist and my anxiety and panic attacks were becoming more frequent, as was the depression that followed them. I had started my work day (at a previous employer) and my daughter was having issues with her school uniform. My partner was away taking our youngest to nursery. I could feel the panic bubbling up.
The complaining wasn’t ebbing. It was almost time for school. I had a call at 9:30am. As the panic and anxiety crested, I screamed at my own daughter and slammed the dresser drawer. The next thing I knew, I was laying on the ground with my daughter in tears over me saying “Daddy, are you ok?” I had had my first (and thankfully only) psychogenic blackout.
I got up, locked myself in my office and called my partner. I don’t remember the exact words but it was something like, “I’m sorry, I cannot be your partner or the kids’ parents anymore – you need to come home and I’m going back to the States.”
“It was within a space of 45 minutes that I quit thinking I could heal myself and reached out for help.”
My partner came home and took our daughter to school. During that time I was packing a suitcase and digging out my passport. When they got home they very calmly came to me and said: “If you feel like you need to leave, that is ok, but before you do, please call your therapist.”
I managed to get hold of my therapist, who told me: “Erik, please call your GP and get a prescription, I’m going to give you 20 minutes to call me back, if you don’t I’ll call for you.”
So I did. It was within a space of 45 minutes that I quit thinking I could heal myself and reached out for help. I say with no hyperbole that had I not, I cannot confidently say I would be here today typing these words. I finally got the diagnosis that I was ignoring for so long: I live with depression and general anxiety disorder.
My GP rushed into action and got me started on anti-depressants. Three years later and after a trial and error period of medications I’m now dialled in: Sertraline for depression and Proponalol as needed for anxiety.
50 per cent of the LGBTQ+ community have experienced depression
Once I got my wits together, I began to panic again – this time about how my new diagnosis would impact my job and my career. At the time I was working for a boutique publisher – a small and close-knit family business – and I didn’t want them to know. I’ve carried the burden of internalised homophobia/biphobia and the toxic masculine notion that ‘strong men aren’t depressed’ with me my entire life, and that isn’t something that can be unlearned after a week of antidepressants and therapy sessions.
Eventually, I opened up to my line manager and another colleague, and while I shouldn’t have been surprised, I was gobsmacked to learn I wasn’t alone. My breakdown was a culmination of experiences that happened to coincide during the times of COVID. Selfishly, I thought I was the only one.
According to data from Champion Health, around 1 in 6 people in the UK are living with depression. For the LGBTQ+ community, the numbers are more stark. Data from Stonewall found that 50 per cent of the LGBTQ+ have experienced depression, and one in eight have experienced anxiety.
“Some are simple gestures while others involve a systemic culture change.”
Yet we still have to work, we have bills to pay and mouths to feed. In this uncertain post-pandemic economic climate, the onus is on employers to support their employees when it comes to their mental health and wellbeing.
Anecdotally, I’m lucky enough to now be employed at a place that takes a vested interest in their employees’ mental health. However, I do have to acknowledge my privilege and admit not nearly enough people have it as good as I do when it comes to workplace support.
So what can employers do to support their employees’ mental health? After years of research and writing about this very issue, I’m more than happy to offer up a few suggestions. Some are simple gestures while others involve a systemic culture change and some heavy lifting when it comes to policy, but all are attainable.
Offer workplace mental health support externally or interally
Support comes in different sizes and shapes. If an organisation has the resources, they need to be offering access to mental health resources. It can be as simple as an enterprise-level membership to online platforms like Spill or Headspace. These are platforms dedicated to mental health wellbeing and give access to therapists, meditations and other resources to boost one’s wellbeing. Give employees a safe space and a platform to talk to someone that can listen and offer help.
It’s also important to note that mental health issues are just like the LGBTQ+ community, they’re not a monolith. We all have individual needs that need to be addressed, so support that can cater to a myriad of needs is best.
If a company just can’t afford that solution, at the very least they can pay for a few select colleagues to be mental health first aid responders. The cost of mental health support is minimal compared to the cost of having to hire and retrain new employees.
End the stigma at work
This is another simple gesture that is all about changing the culture within work. Many people are afraid to talk about their issues simply because they don’t feel safe. It’s really easy to create a sense of psychological safety within work. For this space to be created, leaders need to get proactive.
Thankfully, through my work, I’ve seen an upward trend in this regard. Maybe it was the pandemic, but when we were let into our bosses’ homes during Zoom calls we also caught a glimpse of their lives outside of work. Progressive leaders began to open up more about their own history and experience with mental health. This change in culture allows for empathy. When people have a shared experience, it’s easier to talk about.
As Simon Blake OBE, chief executive at Mental Health First Aid – England once told me: “We know that some of the most influential change mechanisms are when people in senior leadership positions, talk about their lived realities, their experiences of mental health, or of being a lesbian or being trans, because they have a platform.”
Rethink corporate policies
Just like other ‘taboo’ topics like menopause and grief, progressive employers that really care about their employees need to take a look at policies around mental health and wellbeing. Would an extra few sick days to accommodate mental health help really hurt the financial bottom line? What about just a few days dedicated to mental health?
These questions are rhetorical, but it makes sense for employers to commit themselves to mental health and wellbeing. Aside from the moral argument, this type of commitment allows for employees to be their authentic selves, which leads to greater innovation, creativity and ultimately more profits for the business.
I don’t consider myself a campaigner, but I do choose to speak up about my struggles with depression and anxiety because I know that for every one person that does speak up, there are thousands that don’t.
My mental health journey is ongoing. There are ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys and plenty of Halls and Oates’. All I am certain of is that I am still here, and that lowest point has led to me finally being able to confront all of my past and look forward to my future.
I’m here, I’m queer, and I have depression.
If you’re struggling with your mental health and need to talk, contact Samaritans on 116 123 or Switchboard LGBT on 0300 330 0630.