Recognising the Red Flags of Workplace Mental Health (2020)

Manfred Kets De Vries

Recognising the Red Flags of Workplace Mental Health

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The expression mens sana in corpore sano, usually translated as “a healthy mind in a healthy body”, is truer than ever during this pandemic. In particular, prolonged confinement and reduced socialisation have brought mental health issues to the fore.


Recently, one of my clients told me that just before the pandemic, one of his colleagues showed up for work looking extremely distressed. He started emptying his office, giving a number of small decorative items to an assistant. Nobody had the courage to ask him why he was acting like this. The next day he didn’t show up for work, nor did he answer his phone. After a few days, the firm contacted his daughter, who sadly discovered that the man had killed himself at home.


The man’s suicide had an impact on everyone who knew him. My client said that many people in the organisation felt guilty for not having recognised – or perhaps ignored – their colleague’s signs of mental distress. Instead of dealing with the discomfort of this person’s strange behaviour, they chose to play ostrich, refusing to face facts.


Although this example may be an extreme case, for many people, mental health isn’t an easy subject to talk about, at home or at work. Many employers are unaware of how widespread mental health problems are. Even when they are aware, they don’t know how to deal with such issues. Far too often, discussing a person’s mental state is taboo. But from an organisational perspective, not paying attention to the mental health of employees can be very costly. Globally, the total productivity costs of mental distress reach US$1 billion per year.


Shedding light on a problem that isolates its victims


For too long, we have swept the topic of mental illness under the carpet, hoping that it will just go away. But given the heightening of mental health issues in these trying times, we need much more openness, transparency and understanding.


According to the World Health Organization, one in four people in the world will be affected by mental disorders at some point in their lives. Mental ill health can range from feeling “a bit down” to common symptoms such as anxiety and depression, to more severe (but thankfully rare) conditions such as psychotic episodes, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Even if you don’t struggle with mental health issues yourself, you probably know someone who does.


Despite the range of available treatments, nearly two-thirds of affected people never seek help from a health professional, mostly due to fear of stigma. Many view suffering from a mental disorder as a personal failure. They feel embarrassed and worry that others may think that they are crazy. Some may also find it difficult to articulate what’s going on inside them.

INSEAD Knowledge, 2020

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