How being human about mental health can loosen fear’s grip

Jo Hooper

This week, I’ll speak to around 300 people about mental health at work. Sharing my experiences and what I’ve learned over the last two years about how we can look after people’s mental health at work.

In preparing my talks, workshops and engagement sessions, two words have jumped out at me time and time again.



The power of being human

When I was struggling with my mental health at work, I realised that my organisation had all the ‘formal’ support in place – an Employee Assistance Programme; healthcare; paid time off, but that the most powerful and impactful support I received was just human conversation.

‘Just’ human conversation. 

My co-host Jo Hall and I chatted to Paul Farmer, the CEO of Mind for our podcast – A Place to Thrive – recently, and he brought this home to me too.

Fittingly, our episode with Paul will be released this Thursday on World Mental Health Awareness Day. I was thrilled to be able to have such an insightful, unscripted, human conversation with Paul. It really reinforced for me the power of just being a human when it comes to supporting people’s mental health at work.

Please do listen in and let us know what you think.

Today, I’m talking to a room full of internal communicators about the power of just that – being human – and what they can do to create a more human approach to mental health in the workplace.

Fear is still a bitch

The other word I’m saying a lot is fear.

As I’ve written before, fear is a bitch and it kept me iller for longer and in part led to my second breakdown in a year.

I was too scared after breakdown one to face up to the reality of the situation, to try and get to the root of the problem in therapy, to be honest at work and make the changes I needed to, to help me recover and stay healthy.

By breakdown two, I was too exhausted to be afraid. My body and brain forced me to be honest about what was going on and make some big changes, as I physically and mentally couldn’t carry on the way I was.

And in doing so – in being honest, vulnerable, running the risk of being judged – the fear loosened its stranglehold on me.

By being a fallible, flawed, vulnerable human, the fear started to subside.

Loosening the grip of fear around mental health at work: some tips

So, what can we do practically to loosen the grip of fear on us, when it comes to mental health at work? 

If you’re a manager, leader or communicator, I’d suggest:

  • Take a human approach – set aside the policies and pledges and consider the experience of people who might be struggling
  • Look at the evidence – dig into your employee engagement survey scores, hold some focus groups – hear from the horses mouth what the experience is like
  • Listen – ask people what could help. Maybe your people need more support to use the EAP scheme available; maybe those passionate about the issue want to set up a peer support network; what about sharing books, podcasts, articles that helped one another
  • Be honest – if you know you need to do something about mental wellbeing in your workplace, or you’re reviewing your policy or resources, tell people. Show them that action is taking place
  • Talk about it all year-round – don’t just wait for awareness days, weeks, months – useful reminders that they are – think about what you can do year-round
  • Talk to people you’re worried about – you don’t need to be qualified, a clinician, a therapist, to have an empathetic, human conversation with someone – that might be all they need to kick-start their recovery

If you’re struggling yourself:

  • Be honest – find someone you’re comfortable talking to and try to explain how you’re feeling – chances are, they will have felt similar
  • Seek help – I would suggest starting with your EAP scheme, as generally you’ll be able to see someone much more quickly than through your GP. Of course speak to your GP also, as you may want to consider meds as well (I resisted for ages, but they really help me)
  • Tell your boss – it’s hard, but you’re ill. That’s bound to affect you at work and they need to know that. If you had broken your arm and could only type with one hand, you’d feel fine talking to them about it – this is just the same
  • Be kind to yourself – it’s an old cliche, but this shit is HARD. Your brain is overwhelmed, there’s no point heaping more on top of the overwhelm by telling yourself you should be better quicker, or it’s all in your head, or that you should feel guilty for not being on top form. NO POINT. Be as kind to yourself as you would be to a friend who felt the way you do

I am launching my 121 support programmes - Inhale and Breathing Space in the new year - to help you have that conversation with your boss, or to think about what adjustments or help you need at work. I’ll be that friend who really gets it, has been there, will give you the room to take a breath and the tiny push to take the steps that might help. All the details are here.

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