Do away with the stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace

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Life around us is collectively at a standstill. Plans are cancelled, there is an abundance of adjustments, and yet we expect ourselves to be as productive as before. 'Unsustainable', as certain healthcare professionals describe it. Nowadays, we find a lot of tips for stress reduction and the advice to 'take a little more care of yourself. As a result, our society suddenly seems to pay more attention to mental health. This is also the case at UU. But why was a global health crisis needed for this? And is there genuinely room for openness about these issues?

It was with great interest that I read the recent article by Professor Ruud Schotting posted at DUB. In this article, he openly talks about the fact that he is having a difficult time in this period and is experiencing more sadness. It feels like a breath of fresh air to me that this is something that is spoken about more openly by someone on the staff. More and more attention is being paid to student welfare and the consequences of stress on study results, but as employees we prefer to act as if we are strong. Therefore, I was quite saddened to read the last sentence in which Schotting apologises to the students or colleagues who "have suffered" because of his "problem". An apology of which he probably wouldn't have felt the need to give if he had been struck by a physical illness only. After all, he bears no blame. His openness is why I felt the need to react. I am glad that he experienced this openness and that he is feeling better.

The third edition of Wellbeing Week started on Monday the 11th of May, and as an alumna and employee of UU I can only appreciate this initiative. However, when you look at the program of Wellbeing Week, the focus lies strongly on stress reduction and performance pressure. These are important factors that can make a student's and employee's life more enjoyable, but they are not the only things that can affect a person's well-being.

Working hard, performance pressure, stress, and the mental problems that can come with it seem to be leaving the stigma of taboo slowly. It is of course wonderful that these mental issues are increasingly discussed and accepted, but these problems still have to do with being productive. The question is what to do if you can no longer be productive due to, for example the melancholy as Ruud Schotting describes it. In that case, a course in stress management is not enough. The still less accepted mental problems such as depression, anxiety disorders, or phobias that can affect someone's well-being seem to be on the background in our Wellbeing Week.

One of the most important ways to reduce someone's mental problems is to be able to talk about it openly. The government has even started a campaign revolving around this. However, this openness in the workplace does not always seem to be normal or easily accepted. I myself talk openly and unashamedly about my mental problems and therapy outside my work life, and I don't often get the idea that I am judged for this or that I should be ashamed of it. However, when I started intense treatment for PTSD earlier this year, I caught myself trying to communicate this in my team with the greatest caution and still leave most of it undiscussed for fear of how people would react in the workplace. There seems arise a threshold in these situations. At the end of the day, nobody wants to be regarded as "weird" or "weak" or wants to put others in an uncomfortable position. However, that is a fear that should not there in the first place. And, as with Schotting, there is guilt involved.  You don't want to let your colleagues or (fellow) students suffer because of that which you are struggling with.

Of course, it is a choice to keep personal things to yourself, but often keeping this part of your life a secret doesn't feel right and brings with it the necessary tension. It can feel as if you have to keep a part of yourself hidden for a long time and as if there is less of a choice. Many physical limitations are relatively easier to discuss with your supervisor or colleagues without creating the feelings of shame or discomfort that are often associated with discussing mental problems. It would be highly undesirable if staff or students did not dare to ask for help regarding their mental health because of this stigma.

At the next edition of Wellbeing Week, UU would do well to try to create openness about mental health problems that are less accepted as well, in addition to the stress-related complaints that are already being discussed. They can take an example from Talking openly about these kinds of issues brings a lot of calmness, and could help with stress reduction and mutual understanding.

When a corporate social worker recently urged me not to report my mental diagnoses to my team or manager because this could interfere with my further career, I had to stand up for myself. Although this remark may have been well-intentioned, it sends a wrong message and implications. My diagnoses or mental problems do not necessarily say anything about how I function, nor does it say anything about my value, ability or talent. Just like a broken leg would not do so. My hope is that UU will pay attention to this stigma, so that staff and students do not put the blame on themselves. Ultimately, an atmosphere should be created in which these issues can be discussed and employees can find support for this among themselves and their managers. Because just that support can already make a difference.