We need a cultural shift that equates wellbeing with success - Alastair Stewart

The other night I was watching an old clip of the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. It is phenomenal, timeless humour but retrospectively, it can also be a little sad.

The tragic case of Robin Williams gets no less tragic over time and reminds us we must genuinely allow for mental health to be easily discussed and supported, writes Alastair Stewart. PIC: Creative Commons.
The tragic case of Robin Williams gets no less tragic over time and reminds us we must genuinely allow for mental health to be easily discussed and supported, writes Alastair Stewart. PIC: Creative Commons.

In one interview, Carson tries to discuss the seasonal blues with the late Robin Williams. It is from the early 90s. With his matchless stream of fast-paced humour, Williams just moves on to his next gag. He was a comedic genius.

It is hard to imagine the depression and anxiety that led to his suicide in 2014.

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Next year will mark season 3 of the pandemic show. In that time, mental health has become as much a talking point as COVID-19.

As talk of restrictions are back on the table, how do you feel?

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If your gut reaction to that question is to moan, throw up your hands, and question the indomitable sap of modern media, then we have a problem. Or we have the same problem.

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What's fascinating is listening to colleagues across business sectors in Scotland. Once, and not too long ago, there would be stories and complaints about anyone who cited their 'mental health' as a problem. Sometimes it was tongue in cheek, sometimes not.

It is now reputational suicide to trivialise or sideline wellbeing. But it is not a simple choice of doing something or nothing. That grey area is where the real battle resides.

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Right from the onset of the pandemic, three distinct stages of progress regarding supporting employees with their mental health emerged.

For some, mental health remains an extremely awkward topic of conversation to broach with staff or bosses. There might be just the hint that it is not severe, or it's a 'skive'.

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What we might call stage two is arguably the worst offender. Wellbeing is just a tick box exercise to be discussed rhetorically on Linkedin to signal your inclusivity. We have all seen this type of messaging, but it is meaningless social media propaganda unless it translates into a supportive environment.

COVID-19 has brought about a spectacular wave of virtue signalling across the board. It was uncouth and absolutely taboo last year to not clap for the NHS. Months later, there was a public groan that taxes may need to rise to support health and social care costs.

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What might be called stage three is the ideal - a situation where discussing wellbeing and personal problems are a practical subject treated with the same concern, thoughtfulness and adaptation as someone calling in with the flu.

Support might be as simple as picking up the phone to see how someone is doing. It lacks showmanship. This environment is supported by a comfortable, straightforward and totally legitimate business discussion.

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The Mental Health Foundation reports people who are at work and have or have had mental health problems add nearly £225 billion per year to the economy, representing 12.1% of the UK's total GDP. It pays to support staff.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has warned work-related stress, and poor mental health risk is becoming a health and safety crisis for the country's workplaces.

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The Executive has also launched the new campaign, 'Working Minds', which considers issues relating to health at work. The campaign "aims to help businesses recognise the signs of work-related stress and make tackling issues routine”.

Concurrently, many analyses and studies confirm the effect of COVID-19, lockdown, and restrictions on mental health. Depression and anxiety have increased globally. Reports now have the advantage of being able to compare three years worth of evidence accumulation.

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There are event studies charting changes in exercise levels, stress, sex drive, digital exclusion, addiction, and the long-term side effects of isolation and home working.

Children to students to workers and retirees have all confirmed mental health changes. The Mental Health Foundation (MHF) released a study of mental health and wellbeing confirming one in three students in Scotland has reported moderately severe or severe symptoms of depression.

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As a response, there is often a well-meaning but excessive call for legislation. If the pandemic has made anything clear, changing circumstances necessitate government guidance underpinned by creative and flexible personal solutions.

This feels apt given the wholly variable advice issued by UK governments - is the pandemic improving, or are we sliding back into restrictions?

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As with last Christmas, the situation changed overnight. Now the Scottish Government is reporting to be considering an extension of vaccine passports to hospitality venues.

Austria has become the first country in western Europe to reimpose a complete Covid lockdown. The Netherlands went back into western Europe's first partial lockdown of the winter season a week ago.

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According to the outgoing chancellor, Angela Merkel, Germany is considering following suit amid a "dramatic" fourth wave that has hit the nation "with full force".

Employee wellbeing is a practical necessity given the pendulum swing in COVID-19. Mentioning mental health needs to be wholly free of stigma and discrimination on moral and business grounds. We need a cultural shift that ensures wellbeing is as tangible an indicator of success, productivity and ethical business practice as can be.

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We need to culturally remove the notion that mental health is intrinsically tied to resilience, and therefore mentioning the former makes you weaker. Worse, we must cut the sensationalism around mental health - like with physical health there is a range of severity, varieties, problems and solutions.

The pandemic has seen businesses make significant strides forward - but there is more to do. Those who understand mental health as a practical business concern will see a greater return.

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Alastair Stewart is a public affairs consultant and freelance writer.