Dr. Emma Loveridge is a counsellor and psychotherapist and Director of Rafan House, a therapeutic clinic in London. She is a member of This Can Happen Advisory Editorial Board and shared her thoughts on promoting mental health and the best ways of engaging with organisations in the future.
Q. You have worked in the field of mental health for 25 years, what changes have you seen since you started out?
A. The stigma around mental health has dramatically changed in the last 25 years, and certainly for the better. The understanding that every person has a sophisticated part of their mind that can impact home, work, future relationships in a healthy or unhealthy way is much better understood professionally and in the public domain. When it comes to treatment, psychotherapeutic intervention is used less than behavioural approaches (like CBT) which have had political ascendancy and this needs addressing urgently so there is breadth of provision available to people in the health services. I am also greatly encouraged by the increasing ease at which mental health is being accepted as equal to physical health in terms of overall wellbeing – especially in the corporate sector. With greater acceptance of mental health concerns come greater chances of diagnosis, treatment and recovery for many people.
Q. Are workplaces doing enough to address the mental health of staff in the UK?
A. Yes, they are starting to address mental health and most importantly employers are seeking to understand wellbeing and take preventative approaches to help people better manage work life imbalances or what psychologists have recognised as emotional flu. However, there is still work to be done. Statistically, there remains a high percentage of workplace-related illnesses, absenteeism and presenteeism, which costs British companies billions each year. The growing realisation that the price of workplace mental health issues is too great to bear has galvanized the need among British businesses to tackle this issue as a matter of priority.
Q. How does organisational complexity impact the wellbeing of staff and how could this be addressed in the corporate world?
A. Due to siloed departments within an organisation, many people might not feel empowered to seek help, or know exactly to whom to turn. Addressing mental health concerns with a direct manager comes with a perceived amount of risk, i.e. would they be seen as a liability to the organisation? On the other hand discomfort in approaching an HR department might also be a deterrent to seeking help. The fear of stigma or the idea that someone could be perceived as incapable of fulfilling their role could create a “keep silent and push through at any cost” scenario that will most certainly exacerbate the situation. Some people also have an internal mindset where their perception is that there is little kindness or compassion when it comes to illness that is linked to the mind and this is key to understanding how to offer help in the context of an organisation. I think an open door policy coupled with entrenched wellbeing initiatives across organisations are good first approaches to mitigating this risk.
Q. You work with families and individuals. Do you feel it’s important for employers to take the family situations of their employees into account?
A. Depending on the context, I think yes. It’s immensely challenging for someone to deal with a tough family situation and still come to work with their head held high and a positive attitude. A façade will only last so long and burnout is the inevitable outcome, to the detriment of the employee and the wider organisation. An employer has a duty to provide the agency for employees to feel comfortable approaching their line manager and feel supported during tough times. Supporting employees through personally emotional times provides great benefit in terms of staff turnover and organisational reputation. Having said that there is a balance organisations need to walk. Personal circumstances may not be their business and it can be extremely difficult but helpful to find the right organisational balance.
Q. In your experience, do British workplaces lack compassion for employees and how does this impact overall workplace experience?
A. I wouldn’t say they lack compassion, but a lack of understanding of the complexities of mental health issues can result in unintended outcomes. Historically, due to the lack of knowledge, mental health concerns were perhaps trivialised and discounted. Physical illnesses are visible and symptomatic, however outwardly asymptomatic mental health conditions would have raised suspicion and doubt among HR professionals during an age where the subject was unknown, not discussed and/or highly stigmatised.
Q. Has your fascinating work with Bedouin tribes in the Sinai desert impacted the way you view collaboration in workplaces?
A. I think we can draw parallels between desert tribes and workplace teams. I’ve seen first-hand how collaboration amplifies progress and community efforts among tribal communities. Duplicated in a corporate environment it represents the power of collaborative group efforts in achieving wider organisational objectives. I still miss at times being immersed in a tribal culture and my Bedu colleagues and friends. I am glad to be working with our own equivalent here.
Q. You talk about self-sufficient integrated teams having a significant positive impact on a community. Is this reflected in workplaces, and if not, how could that be improved?
A. Teams that work under their own set of guidelines tend to work smarter, rather than existing under preordained overarching rules which are often less efficient, bound by red tape and subject to procedural obstacles. Having said that protocols and procedures are needed and are effective in keeping teams safe and on track. In the Bedouin community for example, it’s evident how small teams working collaboratively with other small teams enhanced the overarching efficiency of the tribe as a whole. Workplaces could benefit from the same structure, however caution should be given to departments and teams who become too siloed and inefficient at cross-departmental communications. Transparency and regular communication between teams improve process and ultimately adaptability and wellbeing. All teams need different skills and a diversity of people and thinking. How to assess and create that is to my mind an art form and key to organisational wellbeing.
Q. You are ordained in the Church of England. Do you feel that religious beliefs should be supported in the workplace and how could this be achieved?
A. Religious beliefs fall under the diversity and inclusion protocols and yes, I believe acceptance of one’s personal beliefs in the workplace is a vital component to a healthy corporate ecosystem. It’s also important to people and therefore helps with overall loyalty to an organisation and retention of staff if employees beliefs are understood. Most of all enjoyment of who people are and the way they understand the world is a mark of respect. It is important however that religion is not allowed to be used to hide or tolerate bad and damaging behaviour to others. This can itself be cause for friction around the needs of some individuals over others and needs careful attention to the nuanced understanding of human rights. There can be conflicts of interest which need careful attention.
An organisation’s core values and mission are the foundation for diversity and inclusion to survive. It’s not enough to have a culturally diverse workforce, or promise tolerance for religious diversity across the organisation’s property. The organisation needs to live and breathe its diversity culture and reflect this belief in everything that they do and say. It takes work to create such a culture but once embedded it usually lives on in a healthy way, so long as the hierarchy is tasked with watching out that it doesn’t get eroded.