In the early 2000s, when I started working in companies, giving workshops on behavioural subjects like sales and conflict management, I was told that it was OK to share that I was a psychologist but “please do not say that you are a clinical psychologist because people may feel uncomfortable around you”. I thought it was odd because I was trained specifically to make people feel comfortable around me. But at that time the stigma around mental diseases, psychotherapy and psychiatry was strong. We know we’ve come a long way when we are now openly addressing mental health on this blog.
I am a clinical psychologist, a psychotherapist and also an executive coach and trainer. I have the broad perspective of organizational reality and simultaneously, a close-up view of people’s lives. That’s why when it became clear to organizations that it was time to talk about mental health, I saw the opportunity of an open and honest approach and the risk of promoting a few webinars, communicate that mental health is a priority when at the same time maintaining business as usual.
Let’s get back to the beginning of the 2000s. It was at that time when companies and organizations in Portugal were starting to get familiar with concepts such as Emotional Intelligence. Let’s keep in mind that in those days a “good leader” would be defined with words such as “cold”, “rational” and “invulnerable”. Things were changing and skills like emotional self-awareness, self-control, empathy and communication skills were becoming part of organizational cultures. So, legitimately we started asking: Can we talk about emotions at the workplace? About fear, sadness, frustration? Share our difficulties? Ask for help? The answer should have been “Yes” but somewhere along the way a science-based model as Emotional Intelligence gave place to the “Positive Thinking Movement” and we couldn’t ask for help or talk about negative emotions because the rule was “Only good vibes!!”. Meaning that you couldn’t share a problem without the risk of hearing: “Don´t bring me problems but solutions!”. Or sharing some difficulty without the comment “You’re being negative, even toxic!” thrown at you. Another set of inspirational ideas that were very common were “There are no limits!”, “There is no impossible!” or “The sky’s the limit!”. This particular kind of belief is very frequent in people who are prone to burnout, because they have no internal limits or boundaries, and they’ll continue to push themselves until they’re exhausted or drained. We now call this Toxic Positivity and we know it is not even neutral to mental health, it is damaging. It breads the illusion that everything is under our control. It is not. And that it is possible to “solve our lives” in a way that we may get rid of negative thoughts and aversive emotions once and for all. We may not. What we may and what we should do is to improve our self-awareness and emotional literacy, so we’ll be able to manage ourselves, our efforts and our resources in a more sustainable way. Of course, it is more appealing to have a simple response to a complex problem, more appealing but less effective. Reality is here to show us that the positive thinking movement didn’t help society, education and workplaces to become healthier or we wouldn’t be facing a mental health crisis after, amongst other factors, two decades of the flourishing self-help industry.
We have the problem, and we have the opportunity to start doing something different, but where should we start?
From my point of view, the first thing to do is not to teach non-mental health professionals how to spot the first signs of mental diseases and specially not to teach non-professionals to do pseudo diagnosis. For two reasons:
The first one is that we still hear in open spaces expressions such as “She’s hysterical”, “He’s bipolar!” or “Has he taken his pills today…?”. We can’t use diagnosis as insults on Mondays and Wednesdays and on Tuesdays and Thursdays convince people to openly share their symptoms. Our effort should be put into the creation of a psychological safe environment, in the words of Amy Edmondson, and only then people will feel comfortable sharing vulnerabilities and asking for help.
The second reason is the idea of spotting the so called first signs of mental diseases. It is important to acknowledge that they are the first signs of the end of the line: there’s a continuum between wellbeing, passing through psychological distress and becoming a mental disease. No one gets ill from one day to another. What the workplace needs to be is a place which consistently promotes wellbeing, even (or even more) in high performance environments. That means changing the culture so people won’t feel continuously stressed, won’t chronically have an overload of work and won’t be managed by leaders who at the end of the day, in their actions, continue to bread emotions like fear and shame when promoting webinars about mental health.
In my work in companies, I am frequently asked “How do we avoid people being cynical about our intentions when we are addressing mental health at the workplace?”. My answer is that cynicism is an adaptive response so people won’t feel deceived again. The only way to avoid it is to be consistent, and to walk the talk. Which may happen if we invest in two pillars: promoting a psychological safe culture and investing in life work integration. When I talk about life work integration I am not talking about gyms, ping pong tables and kindergartens in the company. I am saying that it is not possible to work 10 to 12 hours a day for 5 to 6 days a week as a routine and at the same time be able to have a rich life in all other domains: family, friends and time for yourself. There are no miracles, something’s got to give.