Why It’s not OK, not to be OK

Whilst it was a few months back now, if your LinkedIn feed during mental health week was anything like mine, then you will have seen an array of great and inspiring posts from people opening up about their mental health at work. It is brilliant to see a subject that has, for so long been in the shadows, now coming out into the sunlight.  If the effect of people talking openly about their mental health is that more people feel empowered and confident to talk about it, then that can only be a good thing.

Organisations like The Marketing Society have been at the forefront of pushing that agenda – getting people to feel comfortable opening up and discussing their mental health. A key part of that has been a simple and compelling message of both sympathy and empathy:

'It’s ok, not to be ok'

This message has been transformative for many – helping people know that they are not alone. That there are others that are going through what they are going through. That mental health – like physical health – is something we all have and we all need to focus on and invest in.

But I want to raise a challenge, because I can’t shake this nagging feeling that we may be settling for ‘better than before’, rather than striving to make the fundamental difference required to fully change things.

If I were to summarise the overarching message that I took out from all those Mental Health week posts, it is this:

We (employers/bosses) understand that you may have mental health problems and we can give you the space for you to work through that

And compared to where the vast majority of companies around the globe are, where people are ashamed of their mental health and feel the need to hide it, then this can only be a good thing.

But is that really the yardstick of success? Shouldn’t we aim for more?

I totally recognise that everyone is individual. Every mental health challenge is different, complex and unique. For some, just getting the space to work things through on their own is enough.

But what about others?  What about those for whom the workplace is a context that makes their mental health worse or even where their mental health issues are caused by the workplace?

I wrote last year that my issues had their roots going back 25-30 years. But I also now realise that they were significantly exacerbated by a work environment and culture I used to work in. They didn’t cause it. But that culture certainly enhanced them and exacerbated my own anxieties. 

Is it enough in those circumstances just to sit back and offer space to work through issues? Personally, no. I don’t think it is acceptable just to say 'It’s ok not to be ok' – when at least part of the reason that for not being ok is because of that particular work environment and culture.

Mental health is a huge problem. Just because things are (in many companies) better than they were and people are more able to talk about things, that shouldn’t be what we settle for. We should hold ourselves to higher standards.

We’ve come such a long way in overcoming other stigmas around diversity in the workplace in recent years. But have we achieved what has been done by just saying “It’s ok not to be a straight white man to belong in the workplace”? No. We’ve demanded more. As challenging as it has been, we’ve aspired for more ambitious goals; we’ve set diversity targets, we’ve actively introduced measures of progress, we’ve conducted systemic reviews of the flaws in the system. Whilst things are still far from perfect, progress has been made. There is a positive trajectory.

So what do we do about this? Well I think we need to start with this brutal and simple truth:

It’s never ok for people not to be ok, if we (our company, our people, our culture) are in some way responsible

As employers, bosses and colleagues we don’t have to solve every mental health issue that comes along. But I think we do have a responsibility to lean in and take action, if mental health issues are (in some way at least), promulgated by the work environment.

What does that look like?

Face the brutal truths. Ask the difficult questions. Address the elephants in the room. 

Culture isn’t what the slogan on the wall says it is. It’s what happens in the interactions between people. It’s what is said and unsaid. It’s what is tolerated vs. what is called out. Take the time to investigate the truth of your culture and if there are problems, then take on the difficult task of addressing them.

Until we do, we are papering over the cracks, but we won’t be truly creating better mental health at work.