Mental health Scotland: Awareness is not enough for over-stretched employees – Elsa Maishman

In an office I once worked in, a head of department would send around a calendar each month with handy tips and tricks of things you could do for your mental health each day. Examples included things like being kind to yourself, and noticing a bad mood and changing it.

The vapid, vague nature of the advice rendered it completely useless. But worse than that, several employees were actively upset by the monthly email, as it hammered home just how little the company they worked for cared for their mental health.

Superiors were happy to talk about this when it involved positive thinking, brightly coloured graphics and cute cartoons, but refused to engage in any meaningful discussions about how their employees were suffering.

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One colleague was going through something of a crisis at the time, which was affecting his whole life, his ability to work, and his mental health. He had asked the company for support and received nothing at all.

Caring for the mental health of staff is about more than smiley faces
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Sometimes when I see mental health campaigns run by health and social care employers it reminds me of this. Some are very useful – sometimes a bit of positive cheer or some free snacks really can lift the mood of a workplace and make a difference.

But empty gestures, like “awareness” on its own, rarely do anything to help. Especially in healthcare, where employees are so stretched beyond their limit that what would really be best for their mental health is a payrise and a bit less work to do.

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We are in the midst of mental health awareness month, having recently passed through mental health awareness week. Sometimes it feels as though every week is on a mission to raise awareness about something or other, and there are certainly more than enough health conditions whose patients need support and whose charities need funding.

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Without question, these awareness weeks are worthwhile. They provide a useful hook for vital stories and issues which so often get overlooked, encouraging news outlets to spread the word, and health services to run awareness campaigns.

They also might encourage people to take action about their own health – to take up an offer of screening after an awareness week for a certain type of cancer, or to notice the symptoms they had been ignoring for some time.

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Mental health awareness week has its own value, in urging people to take care of themselves and seek help if they need it, or to watch out for warning signs in others.

But this week is also one of the worst excuses for performative action. The brightly coloured graphics, smiley faces and cute cartoons come out en masse, as many organisations seem to make as much effort as possible to talk about mental health, to send around company-wide emails and put out social media campaigns, without actually having to do anything to support employees.

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And then many fall completely silent, with no more mention of it until the next awareness week rolls around. It is wonderful that companies feel at least able to mention the topic – it wouldn’t have been the case in the past – but employers have such power to affect the lives of their employees that simply talking about mental health is not enough.

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