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1 in 6.8 people experience mental health problems in the workplace, and better mental health support in the workplace could save UK businesses up to £8 billion per year. It’s time for employers to step up to the plate and help battle the stigma. I chat to my good friend and qualified psychotherapist, Erin Gallagher about what we’re up against, and why it’s more pertinent than ever that we press pause…

I’ve made some notes about Mental Health Days (MHDs), and the advice I’d give to my clients, and at the bottom I’ve just put, ‘Tea and biscuits’.

My awareness of MHD is from back in July, American Madyln Parker’s out of office, telling colleagues she needed a break from work to ‘focus on her mental health’ and her CEO’s response, applauding her for it, all going viral. What do you think of as a MHD?

I applaud Madyln for being so frank and honest about why she needed to take a break from work. She felt the need to take the pressure off for a day or two. There’s such a build–up of stuff to be done – we’re living to–do lists. We can place too much importance on our careers to the detriment of ourselves and the detriment of our careers ironically. Sitting in front of the TV and switching off mentally is the therapy we need sometimes. I saw that you had a MHD yesterday and it was chocolate and marshmallows. I applaud you too.

Do you think it can take a few forms? It can be PJ’s, or a long bike ride, baking or reading – that it’s listening to what you need?

Definitely. Some people need a duvet day, some people need to be active. If you don’t take a MHD you’ll end up doing a Forrest Gump where you just start running one day because your body will force you to take leave of your pressures, by that time you might not want to stop running. MHD’s are a mini–break – to get away from it all, and chill, before you burn out.

I read that an MHD is not just about staying in bed all day watching Netflix – and my response was, if that’s what you need to do, do it. It’s different to waking up, and deciding you can’t be bothered to go in. If you need some escapism and you’re knackered – if that’s your cure, then do it. I don’t think we should judge how people get or feel better.

Exactly. For some, including myself in the past, MHD’s are about writing in a journal and making plans, but in PJs of course. It’s going to look differently to everyone.

I did that. Slept in then wrote. I think my anxiety was down to feeling overwhelmed so I wanted to get on top of it. Then I had a treat.

I think people need this step away more than they think – your brain can be on one big wheel of stuff to do and figure out. But the brain isn’t the whole story about who you are and we need to pay attention to the part of ourselves that like to stare out of the train window and think about nothing, that daydreamy state that we have no time for in our busy lives. But, its not necessarily about switching off for everyone either, it can be a good way to get off the treadmill and take stock of your life and whether you are living it as you might want to.

Some people don’t like to take holiday, because they fret the whole time about how much work they’ll have to catch up on – is an MHD the best response to feeling overloaded at work – are you not just putting pause on a problem that’s then exacerbated?

Well, people that just keep going and charging through aren’t doing themselves any favours. It won’t get better. You have to re–charge your batteries. I’ve got a friend who quit a job, where she was a Manager, after 2 months, not something she’d ever done before – but the pressure she was under was ridiculous. So sometimes it’s about walking away from a job that’s not right for you. Or realising that if you take a break, nothing’s going to fail, no one’s going to die. Unless you’re a doctor. I do worry about Doctors.

Does it keep you up at night?

It does! I recommend to all my clients, Doctors too, if you wake up and think, ‘I simply can’t go in today,’ then don’t. A well–timed day off can do people the world of good. The responsibilities we have at work when we are immersed in them day after day can take on a life or death importance that they shouldn’t have. Taking a break can put things back into perspective and you’re more likely to work better and more efficiently for having some time away.

That’s an interesting one though, when health professionals need a MHD, but potentially the people they’re looking after will suffer for that – what’s the solution?

Well, you’re not going to be great for them if you’re struggling yourself. And there’s more than one Doctor in the UK, we can all work together to cover the gaps for ONE day. As a mental health professional in theory, you know when you’re on the decline, more aware of the signs and signals in yourself that you need a break. We need to stop thinking that things will crumble without our input with a day, or a few days away. We can make provision for it in advance if necessary.

I like to retain the idea that I’m important.

Well, I hate to tell you this Gemma but, you’re not.

Sad but true. Do you think an MHD is covered by a company sick day?

Definitely, sickness is of body and mind – they’re not separate. There’s no dualism. You need to maintain your physical self, and mental.

Would most people feel comfortable phoning up to say they need a brain break? Would they be supported? I think the majority of companies in the UK wouldn’t have time for it.

There’s definitely still a lot of stigma surrounding it. Suddenly the person’s entire mental health can be brought into question, unnecessarily. The stigma is slowly wearing away – bigger companies are starting to take it into account. But no, I don’t think we’re there yet. This is one of the reasons so many young men commit suicide – they don’t feel they can talk about it or ask for help, without their reputation being smeared, and judgments being made.

I read somewhere (Metro) that if you feel anxious on top of what you’re already going through, just at the prospect of telling the truth to your Manager, that you should just say it’s physical – whatever allows you to have that time off. But that’s a shame. It’s a sad state of affairs – we’re told mental and physical health are equal, but in the minds of many employers it’s just not the case.

You’re right. And I hope in the future MHDs will be clearly woven into what we’re entitled to as ‘sick days’. But for now, whatever it takes. We weren’t put on this earth to run ourselves ragged. Bigger companies will lead the way – realising that they have to look after their employees and promote the idea that it’s okay to need a mental break – it’s healthy to acknowledge it.

There’s money to be saved; potentially, giving people room to have the odd day off may be all they need, rather than the problem building and developing into something worse. Plus you come back renewed with more energy and do a better job (in theory). You want a happy workforce on all fronts.

If people feel they have that understanding, they can relax and work and enjoy it more – if they’re encouraged to open up and be themselves – you’ve then got personalities instead of robots. You need to be given space to be human. And that humanity is where ideas and solutions flow from, benefiting the company.

People are looking at what’s in it for them beyond the salaries. This support could be hugely important when it comes to wellbeing and loyalty. It’s a big plus.

Yes, bigger companies can afford to let their employees take time and express themselves. I do understand there’s tension for smaller businesses– where they can’t afford to have people off – when they’re missed a lot more sorely. Then again it might be those people in understaffed, over–worked roles that need MHDs most of all. I would recommend talking to you manager or boss, you might find they are more understanding than you think if you were to let them know that you needed a day or two to decompress. Having a day or two off here is better than being off sick for a whole week in 3 months time. They can prepare too and everyone is happy.

I think people are increasingly more focused on the perks aside from salary, health etc – that you’re looked after as a person

It’s about company culture – like a generous compassionate leave policy, the surrounding things that allow people to recover. You spend so much of your life at work – people might settle for less money if the support was there – if they felt fulfilled and listened to. I think people would re–consider moving to another job for more money if they felt like their current employer cared about them as more than a cog in a machine.

It can be that simple, can’t it? Are you cared about or are you just a cog?

Exactly.

It’s also about training, right? Sometimes Managers become Managers with no additional training, and they have no idea how to help people with their mental health.

Yeah that’s not logical – to promote something and not prepare them for what it means to support people. And it puts a lot of pressure on those Managers to deal with what could be some potentially heavy stuff from their team.

Have you heard about Time to Change? It’s an initiative from companies committing to tackling mental health problems in the workplace. Mostly bigger companies I think, which is encouraging if you work for a big company.

Yes and I think it’s great. Companies involved in the initiative have already said what a positive impact it has had on their workforce. I understand it is tougher on smaller companies to have their employees off , but like we’ve said, the benefits would be for the employer and the employee, why can’t it be for both?

It’s got to be done properly though right? Instead of companies just settling things up as a tick box, marketing exercise, they have to be fully prepared to follow through and help. So if there’s a support group or a one–to–one or whatever, and you’re asked, ‘how are you doing?’ and you honestly say, ‘You know, not great right now,’ they have to anticipate that and be able to deal with it. I’ve experienced it when they’re like, ‘Oh, oh you’re actually not good? And now there’s a public display of emotion? Everybody look away and never bring this up again.’

I’m so sorry that happened to you. That must have left you feeling exposed and vulnerable.

I was alright, I was lucky that I had a great support group outside of work. But that’s the danger. They put stuff in place, but not well. That can almost be more damaging.

They need people with experience. It’s a lot to ask of someone that hasn’t been trained. They don’t know how to hold what you’re giving them, they might panic and make it worse. The alternative could just be providing the access to talk to a professional. There are other ways of doing it. You get a desk and they look after your lumbar support, and a padded mouse mat for your RSI etc, why wouldn’t they then look after you if your brain’s gone to mush because you can’t cope. It happens to me a lot.

Me too. Okay, what do we mean by ‘mentally healthy’?

I’ve always really struggled with this, ‘there’s mental health and there’s mental ill health.’ Your body can feel great some days and crap another, same with your brain. It doesn’t mean that you’re fine mentally and then you have this sudden blip and that’s it forever more. It can go in waves. We need better terms. What shall we call it – mental maintenance?

It’s almost abnormal to go through your life without any flair up of stress, anxiety, depression etc. It’s unlikely not to find yourself against one of those labels. The healthy part is acknowledging it and seeking help right? Rather than the expectation that you’re never going to break.

Exactly, and I know this might sound a bit weird – but it’s good when we hear about celebrities having a mental health struggle, it makes other people feel normal for experiencing anxiety and depression or whatever it is too. The word illness –while technically correct, it just sounds so dramatic, but it happens to all of us. It can be a signal that something needs to change – we should pay attention.

Just like with the physical, a headache or dizziness etc.

Exactly – something needs addressing, and it’s not sustainable. My background is in Existential Psychotherapy although I intergrate various aspect to my practice. My clients and I get to the nitty gritty, which is basically, ‘We’re all definitely going to die one day, so what are YOU going to do before then?’

Carpe Diem.

Especially in work – it’s 40 hours a week.

I don’t like it when people say, ‘It’s just a job.’ I understand it if you’re sweating the small stuff and you need to learn to leave it at the office. But when you’re unhappy, I don’t get it. I increasingly value my time.

Yes, we’re in a very privileged position, not everyone gets to choose what they do, or gets the job they want. But talking from this position, it’s not good when people kill themselves for their jobs, and don’t have any time for themselves, any social or down time.

If it’s short–term for a goal or you slog it temporarily for a promotion, I get it.

You have to ask, ‘Is this making me happy?’

And coming back to the mental health side. Do you need a one–off MHD to re–charge or are you just miserable because of your job? It can be a trigger to the thought that you need a bigger change.

Sometimes you need that day to say, ‘What am I doing?’ You start questioning. A lot of people are unhappy but they don’t know why. My job is to help people with the awareness, that pain in their chest, sick feeling in their stomach, or fuzzy thinking, to help them figure out what’s causing it. It can be terrifying to change, but otherwise it means that pervading sense of unease stays with them. Facing it will always be the happier course eventually, even if it’s hard. It’s nowhere near as hard as continuing to go to work if that’s the issue.

And could there be a more serious realization about your mental health? An MHD is a check–in, and the result of that may be, ‘I’m not okay.’

Yes, and there is help there. Sadly it’s better if you can pay for it, rather than wait around on an NHS list. But short–term you may have to lean on your support network and be honest.

Yeah, the wait time can be crazy for a councilor or a therapist.

My friend asked me what’s the difference between and councillor and a therapist, and I said, a councillor is there to support and listen, which is the same as a therapist, except that I won’t let my clients off the hook if I think there’s something that’s hurting them, and I’ll encourage them to dig down. He said my tag line should be, ‘Erin Gallagher Psychotherapy – this is not a safe place.’

Such a good sell.

Erin Gallagher

Erin Gallagher is a qualified psychotherapist based in Sheffield. She has practiced in both London and Sheffield since 2012. She can be contacted at www.eringallagher.co.uk.