When we think about what not to talk about in the workplace, the topics could range from politics or religion to the ridiculous party you went to on the weekend… perhaps it is best to keep quiet. With the issue of mental health in the workplace rising on our agendas, it seems that keeping quiet (or emotional suppression) is actually the cause of serious mental and physical health problems 1.
According to an ABS study, untreated mental health conditions cost Australian businesses $10.9 billion per year. This figure comprises of absenteeism, presenteeism and compensation claims 2. Other factors that negatively affect mental health include bullying or harassment, burnout and impostor syndrome and the stigma against whistle-blowers. The common thread behind each of these issues is the pressure on employees to remain silent when dealing with internal distress.
Companies throughout the world are realising the detrimental effects of untreated mental health issues. It makes sense that many workplaces are implementing mental health and well-being initiatives, as well as encouraging an ‘open door’ policy and time off work when required. Even though 81% of organisation leaders in Australia indicate their workplace has one or more policies, procedures or practices to support mental health, many employees (35%) don’t know these resources exist, or don’t have access to them 2. We know there’s an issue, and there have been many attempts to address it – so why don’t employees speak up?
Let’s take a step back, and look at some psychology behind why humans have trouble opening up. Firstly, there is a clinical word to describe this phenomenon: Alexithymia; the inability to identify and express or describe one’s feelings. Another way of looking at it is the ‘stiff upper lip’; avoiding expressing emotions whether they be positive or negative. Some people are more prone to this behaviour, and this can lie in genetics and personality traits, upbringing and cultural background, and of course, their current lifestyle (including your work environment).
Humankinds’ need to conform also plays a part in why we are staying silent. Political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann coined the term ‘the spiral of silence’, the concept of social control where individuals, almost instinctively sensing the opinions of those around them, shape their behaviour to prevailing attitudes about what is acceptable 3. Further to this, the famous Milgram experiment highlights how when under pressure, a person’s fear of defying authority can overwhelm the impulse to do the right thing 4. If at one end of the spectrum, staying silent can lead to unhealthy levels of conforming, the other side of the spectrum would be the whistle-blowers. Whistle-blowers reinforce the fear that speaking up leads to punishment. In many high-profile cases, we have seen that an employee’s complaints were thrown out and covered up and they themselves were eventually pushed out of the company. The stigma of being a ‘whistle-blower’ can have long-lasting effects on the employee’s mental health and employability 5.
It’s in the human condition to feel the underlying internal and social pressures and to conform and accept the status quo.
Bringing us back to the workplace, a couple of examples include tackling a difficult task and struggling through without asking for help, or turning up to work after dragging yourself out of bed when you are feeling like death, and telling yourself ‘it’s not so bad’. If employees are struggling to talk, especially about mental health issues, how can we help? While there is no one solution, the following checklist will get us thinking about the next steps forward:
- Have a workplace initiative in place. The only way to destigmatise mental health is to open up the dialogue, employer and employee alike. To aim for honest and open communication, and flag any issues that they are facing, or might be witnessing in the workplace. However, Harvard Business Review (HBR) recommends that the initiatives are direct and focused, as some of the more ‘general’ calls to action might not cut it 6. For example, the anonymous survey can make some employees nervous, and reinforce the fear that speaking up openly is not welcomed. In addition, something like the ‘open door’ policy is still very passive, and relies on an employee having the courage to knock on the manager’s office door.
- Time-Off. We know overtime chips away at an employee’s morale. We all should prioritise sticking to the office hours, leaving your desk at lunch and taking breaks and leave as required. Continuously pushing through and overworking yourself lead to burnout and presenteeism (being at work, but not as productive as you usually would be due to a physical/mental illness).
- Managing expectations. This is an important item to set boundaries for, as it effects a variety of parties; a client, your co-workers, your manager and, of course, yourself. Employees can take steps to reclaiming their workload and scope with the client, as well as setting regular internal check-ins with your manager, which gives an even playing field to raise any issues. Working through a clearer Job Role description could assist both employer and employee.
- Inclusion and security. An employer should be able to provide job security and a safe, supportive place for employees to talk if they ever need to. In return, it’s important for employees to speak up when they need to. Building a positive work relationship takes time, trust and constant patience. Ideally, an employer should be clear about the type of feedback they are seeking and also a plan of action after the feedback is received. The employee will feel like they were listened to and, fingers crossed, continue to speak up.
Solving the issue of ‘silence’ in the workplace takes a level of commitment from both employer and employee, and it will require constant maintenance. HBR have summarised it well; the two main reasons employees won’t speak up are: a fear of consequences (embarrassment, isolation, low performance ratings, lost promotions and even getting fired) and a sense of futility (the belief that saying something won’t make a difference, so why bother) 6. As such, if organisations can help allay these stressors, this will clear the path for open communication both ways… Let’s stop giving each other the silent treatment!
- Gustafson, T. (2014, March 31). Keeping Your Emotions Bottled Up Could Kill You. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/timi-gustafson/bottling-up-negative-emotions_b_5056433.html
- Heads Up. (2014). State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia. Retrieved from Heads Up website https://www.headsup.org.au/healthy-workplaces/what-is-a-mentally-workplace
- Noelle-Neumann, E. (1993). The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion – Our Social Skin (2nd). University of Chicago Press, 1984.
- McLeod, S. (2007). The Milgram Experiment. SimplyPsychology. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/milgram.html
- Svoboda, E. (2017, July 13). What makes whistleblowers speak out while others stay silent about wrongdoing. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2017/07/13/what-makes-whistleblowers-speak-out/?utm_term=.9c2f03d1c880
- Detert, J. R, and Burris, E. R. (January – February 2016 Issue). Can Your Employees Really Speak Freely? Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/01/can-your-employees-really-speak-freely
Blog Contributed by Georgia Posar
“Perfectly left of centre, she smashes every job with enthusiastic precision”