How to be a workplace mental health ally for all

Beckett Frith
Beckett Frith

Senior Content Officer, Mental Health at Work

An ally is someone who takes action to support an underrepresented group, even if they themselves are not a part of the group. Many people are choosing to become mental health allies in the workplace, standing up for their colleagues who experience poor mental wellbeing. 

In this blog, Beckett Frith encourages allies to think about the challenges their role might bring, and offers ideas on being effective even when helping someone who is experiencing a crisis.

Are you a mental health ally?

As you’re reading this blog, chances are you would at least like to be an ally – and that’s great! Improving the mental wellbeing of the UK’s workforce relies on people like you who are willing to stand up, make changes, and have their voices heard.

However, being a true ally means sticking with your convictions even when times get tough. And sadly, mental health can get really, really tough sometimes.

We want to help you to be ready for anything you might face as a workplace ally. Thinking about these issues now means you’ll be prepared if you encounter something unexpected, and help you to stay resilient no matter what you’re faced with.

I couldn’t stay focused on anything

Let’s take a real case as an example. ‘Sarah’, who is using a pseudonym to remain anonymous, shared her experience with Mind. She explains that she began to experience an extreme feeling of euphoria, and it impacted all areas of her life.

“I couldn’t stop smiling, couldn’t stay still and didn’t feel the need to sleep,” she says. “My mind was super active; my thoughts rushed from one topic to the next; I couldn’t stay focused on anything.”

Her restlessness escalated and she started to feel the urge to climb things around her. “This became quite dangerous,” she adds. “At work, I was based in an old church and I’d amuse myself by climbing around the outside railings of a staircase, two floors up above a stone floor. I started to think that if I fell while climbing, somehow I’d be invincible and I’d come off unscathed.”

A woman is deep in thought.

Seeing someone do something like this might be shocking, and your first instinct might be to consider what disciplinary actions you should take to make them stop behaving dangerously. However, that’s not going to help in this case.

Sarah was experiencing a mental health crisis, and her erratic actionsBipolar disorderBipolar disorder is a mental health problem that mainly affects your mood. If you have bipolar disorder, you are likely to have times where you experience manic or hypomanic episodes (feeling high), depressive episodes (feeling low), and potentially some psychotic...Find out more were a symptom of that. How do you think you might react if a colleague suddenly started behaving in an unusual, dangerous or frightening way?

Many firms are now encouraging staff to be more open​How can you have the right conversation to support an employee at work? PDF As a line manager, it’s important to recognise how to manage the emotional wellbeing of employees at work. This two-page guide from Nuffield Health explores five key steps to help staff move from emotionally barely surviving back to thriving.Free By: Nuffield Health View resource about their mental health. This is a very positive step, helping to reduce stigma and creating an open community. Allowing someone to talk about their experiences of depression or anxiety is important. However, to be truly inclusive, it’s important to be ready to hear about mental health issues that might be less well understood.

The Man Who Couldn’t Stop

Author and journalist David Adam, who has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), shared his experience of intrusive thoughts in his book The Man Who Couldn’t Stop. He explains that since the age of 18, he has had irrational thoughts of contracting AIDS.

He tells the story of a time when he cut his foot while swimming. “I had scraped the back of my heel on the sharp edge of the final step,” he writes. “I pulled a paper towel from above the sink to press to my wet heel… Wait a minute. What the hell had I done? I had put a paper towel on a fresh cut. There could have been anything on that paper towel.”

This caused him to worry uncontrollably that he had contracted AIDS from the tissue. The thoughts were so powerful, they compelled him to bring home the paper towel he used and others from the bin to check there was no traces of other people’s blood visible.

A man stands on a balcony alone.

As well as fears of contamination like David experienced, intrusive thoughts can take the form of violent or frightening ideas, a need to hold on to useless items (hoarding), or other unhelpful fears.

If a colleague discloses having thoughts like this at work, you might feel concerned for their wellbeing. As OCD UK states, “to sufferers and non-sufferers alike, the thoughts and fears related to OCD can often seem profoundly shocking. However, it must be stressed again that they are just thoughts, and they are not voluntarily produced.”

And it’s important to understand that intrusive thoughts do not make somebody ‘bad’ or dangerous. In fact, people living with OCD are the least likely people to actually act on such thoughts.

To help someone experiencing this, it’s important to be calm and non-judgemental – just as you would be if someone disclosed experiencing anxiety​Workplace anxiety and work-related anxiety Web page Anxiety can be caused by issues inside or outside the workplace, and it's worth employers making efforts to look out for signs that an employee might need support. This page from Acas has a range of tips.Free By: Acas View resource or depression​Symptoms of depression and their effects on employment PDF At least one in six workers is experiencing common mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. This report addresses some key questions about how depression can affect work. Free By: The Work Foundation View resource.

As a mental health ally, it’s important to know it can happen, and to think ahead

As you can see, being an ally can be complicated, and it’s worth thinking about these situations now to ensure you can still support your staff when you’re juggling different priorities.

There is, then, of course, the times when a mental health crisis arises that is really beyond what can be managed at work. I’m talking about situations such as a psychotic episode, a full-blown mania, or active suicidal feelings​Suicide prevention and postvention Web page NHS Employers have put together this short web page with facts about suicide, links to resources which might be helpful for managers, and signposting to crisis help for those at risk of suicide.Free By: NHS Employers View resource, where your colleague might be in immediate danger. This might not be something you have to deal with often, but as a mental health ally it’s important to know it can happen, and to think ahead about how your organisation might be able to handle these situations.

Colleagues share a coffee.

The fact is, mental health is complicated, and can be difficult to plan for. We don’t expect you to become an expert in every sign and symptom, but understanding that you might be faced with issues like these can help you to develop a resilient and adaptable mindset when it comes to helping your teams.

Mind give all of their line managers guidelines like this to help them deal with these circumstances, which include both written guidance and a flow chart to use if they find themselves supporting someone in a crisis situation.

It includes information like when it might be required to include the emergency services, supporting the employee after the event, and managing a suitable return to work​Returning to the workplace: line manager 1:1 conversation guide PDF This PDF guide from Unilever has been designed to help line managers to start one-on-one conversations with their teams about how they are feeling about their return to work after a long period of working from home or furlough.Free By: Unilever View resource. Preparing a guide like this for your own organisation can help your workplace to be ready for the difficult parts of mental health allyship.

When it comes to the complicated world of mental health, it’s important to be ready for anything. Ready to be challenged, ready to be compassionate, and ready to step outside of your comfort zone. Sometimes, being an ally is hard – but we’re so grateful for you.

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