Opinion: companies have to undertake a deep dive review to deal with mental health seriously rather than treat it as a PR or HR exercise

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When I recently attended a global law firm's discussion in London about their mental health awareness day, I was not so much struck by their concern, but by the strange mix of PR, compliance box-ticking and smugness. They gave everyone a brochure and a badge, talked about how they might do better and extolled their exciting plans of sharing cake on the day and asking people how they feel. Yeah, that’s really going to stop someone with a mental health issue from being depressed. Actually, it is more likely to increase their anxiety.

It is well-documented there are rising levels of anxiety, stress and pressure at work. An arc of mental health exists from everyday stress through to mental illnesses such as self-harm. Ireland has one of the highest rates of mental illness in Europe, with one in four people predicted to suffer mental health issues at some point in their lives. Employees in the health, public administration and manufacturing sectors experience the highest levels of job stress. In terms of functions, professionals and managers are the most vulnerable. Emotional demands, bullying and harassment, and pressures on time are factors most common amongst those suffering from stress. According to a recent OECD report, the cost to the Irish economy is over €8.2 billion annually

From RTÉ 1's Prime Time, why has workplace stress doubled in recent years?

Modern economic life is creating greater pressure, but let’s highlight two. First, technology and economic innovation offer ease in many areas, but there is a negative effect for every positive effect. We can communicate around the world, but are inundated with large quantities of unfiltered data making it harder to manage on an individual level.

Second, we have increasing levels of regulation and laws, which are defining our actions more closely than any previous generation. Such change in society and the workplace is causing us all stress, but let’s not package it in that strange confection of triviality and hyperbolic language that scars social media.

For businesses, mental health awareness provides a calendar opportunity to do internal PR about how nice the company is to their employees, provides fodder for a corporate social responsibility report that nobody reads, and provides evidence in respect to compliance when it comes time to give someone with a mental health issue the heave-ho.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Sean O'Rourke, Professor Jim Lucey on returning to work after mental illness

While there is great awareness now about mental health, it is largely trivialised by these PR efforts. To deal with mental health seriously, companies have to undertake a deep dive review rather than treat it as a PR or HR exercise.

The sense of loss of control, or barely hanging on, are hallmarks of a mental health condition. The problem for people with mental health issues is that the control mechanisms we have to deal with these issues are not working properly - or at all. Mental health's lack of visibility means those suffering from issues may be disguising their behaviour very effectively by appearing almost happy or even exhibiting great bravado in their actions, while the demons are at work deep inside them.

Companies need to look at their complicity in real mental health issues. What is the management system, the working environment and the HR mentality in the company? In other words, to what extent is the company or management causing or exacerbating a mental health issue for a real person with real problems?

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Sean O'Rourke, how to survive a toxic workplace

Here are some possible solutions. Remove anything to do with employee engagement from the HR department. HR’s primary duty is to take care of compensation and benefits (the clue is in the term "resources"). People do not think of themselves as resources. Those with mental health issues are not defective or underperforming resources; they are people in pain. However much the HR industry tries to dress it up, HR should stick to its finance and control functions.

Develop people well-trained in care issues and train them to be effective communicators to listen and see things from the employee's view. They can negotiate the space between the person and the work needs.

Change how people are managed. Instead of simply fitting people into boxes that makes them "easier" to manage - and easier to tick boxes against for HR - try understanding what fits the employee. They may fit better elsewhere in the company, or may equally need better support to help them find another company where there is a fit.

READ: A guide to going back to work after a mental health illness

However, I’m not optimistic many company executives will listen. Changing leadership culture is like trying to turn around a big ship, and this is not going to change any day soon, regardless of the "good press" companies generate through their PR efforts. Mental health will thus remain a performance issue and a compliance problem for management, masked by PR campaigns while the stench of poor management of mental health issues remains. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ