As researchers attempt to map the complex patterns,the mystery of our minds may explain some of the less salubrious attitudes towards mental illness.
“It’s little wonder there’s been so much stigma among humankind. If we don’t understand something...we want to judge people,” says Peter Joseph,chairman of the Black Dog Institute. “Fortunately, that is changing and Australia kicks well above its weight in discussing this stuff. The discoveries that will be made in our lifetime will be quite monumental, and will get us to a place where we have more and better answers than we have now.”
As it stands, Australian workplaces may not have the answers, but are catching on to the fact that something needs to change. Mental ill-health is on the rise; one in every three people you work with is likely to be suffering from anxiety, depression or chronic stress, and one in five has taken sick days (three on average) in the past year because they feel mentally unwell. The cost to industry exceeds $11 billion a year.The conversation about mental health is now opening up, thanks to those courageous souls who refuse tobe shamed for their struggles.
In a new biography, The Price of Fortune: The Untold Story of Being James Packer, the 51-year-old billionaire reveals that his battle with anxiety and depression,along with his recovery from a third nervous breakdown, prompted his resignation as director of his Crown Resorts company earlier this year.
Just weeks ago, former trade minister Andrew Robb spoke at the Black Dog Strategy Day, held at UBS in Chifley, about living with depression that hit so hard it took hours to will himself from bed each morning,even at the height of his career. Such high-profile accounts are a reminder of how pervasive the problem is.
“At the end of the day, whether you’re a factory worker or CEO, what you’re seeing is the impact of what stress looks like for different people. It’s family, it’s finances, it’s time, it’s health; all of those things,” says Shannah Kennedy, one half of The Essentialists wellness educators who have run workshops for Deloitte, Macquarie, CommBank, AFL and Seek.
Although businesses are not always the cause of stress and mental ill-health, they often add to it. “I think part of that is the evolution of technology; people feeling like they are more accessible, they need to be more available,” says Lyndall Mitchell, the other half of The Essentialists. “People don’t have a lot of boundaries around that so they sort of self-combust. In a lot of cases, technology is the master of their time and they feel like they’ve got no space for themselves, they’ve got no space to think.”
Almost half of us check our emails outside working hours, and we all spend far too much time during our working day at the mercy of our computers. “The average worker would be spending 15 to 20 hours a week on email, whereas I don’t think anyone would look at their job description and have it say they need to spend up to 50 percent of their time on email,” says Andrew May, high-performance coach and founder of KPMG’s Performance Clinic.
“What that leads to is people doing their work in the early morning, late at night or on weekends, and that erodes into their family or personal time. The trickle effect from emails plus time spent in useless meetings – a lot of people spend their day not doing what’s in their job description.”
The cause, experts say, is partly the lack of hours in the day, and a perception that more hours equals more commitment. “What we find with a lot of our clients is that they’re putting a lot of pressure on themselves and looking at other people and comparing themselves, thinking ‘I have to be better, I have to exert myself even more and it’s costing me my marriage and my kids and my health’,” Kennedy says.
Despite feeling stretched, only about 50 percent of workers feel they have a mentally healthy workplace, according to Beyond Blue’s report: The State of Mental Health in Australian Workplaces.
“Even in this day and age, when we talk about culture and leadership and mental health, I still have witnessed cases where so-called senior leaders have a toxic bullying culture and nothing is done about it,” says May, who believes this is partly due to politics and partly due to high performers getting away with bad behaviour.
“Psychological safety is the big thing. It’s where you feel comfortable to turn up and you are supported by your leaders, you can have honest, robust conversations without being reprimanded or punished and you feel safe. A toxic work culture and bullying are the antithesis of having a safe workspace.”
With some people trying to manage such issues themselves, often with the ‘big four’ addictions (technology, sugar, drugs or alcohol), what are workplaces doing to help? Meditation teacher Tim Brown has worked with numerous high-profile individuals and corporations over the past 16 years.
As science has unveiled its potential to relieve stress and anxiety, improve resilience and productivity, meditation has moved from yurts to meeting rooms around Australia. Instead of doing meditation ‘junkets’ with the businesses he works with, Brown offers company-subsidised meditation courses to individuals, “so you can meditate on company time”. It has a greater impact, he adds, if the individual is invested and avoids it becoming an HR “box-ticking exercise”.
It’s important that the individual is invested, because Brown recommends meditating for 20 minutes twice a day, which seems like a significant amount of time for those already struggling to complete a never-ending list of tasks, let alone have time for their family, friends or themselves.
“The simple thing is the third law of thermodynamics; de-excite the system and it moves towards order; over-stimulate the system and it moves towards disorder and chaos. It does cost some time, but like any business cost, there’s ROI,” Brown says.
“It may cost 20 minutes, but 20 minutes of meditation is equivalent to three to four hours of sleep. So, people can get that relaxation, re-launch, re-form and be far more dynamic in the workplace.”
It provides such ROI, Brown says, that those who are invested, are “becoming crafty” about finding places to meditate at work. “They’re ducking into nooks and crannies or ducking out to the synagogue or church, park benches, cupboards. I’ve worked with clients who may be doing 18-hour days for two years straight on huge projects, very prone to burn out, and they say to me that the only reason they’re sane is because they meditate.”
Like Brown, The Essentialists see great value in using tools like meditation and mindfulness to support mental health. In their Masterclass of Wellness, they offer it as part of a “tapas menu” where individuals are encouraged to choose one or more skills to take away. “It’s being able to be practical,” Kennedy says. “Understanding that diaphragmatic breathing is what is keeping your nervous system in a relaxation response where you’re going to be most productive, most creative. Using breathing as an actual skill – it’s something you can do in transit or while your computer is firing up in the morning, during lag times.”
This is a simple yet significant skill, especially when you consider, as Mitchell points out, that “on average, we’re triggering off our stress response 12 times a day, and it’s a response that was designed to be used once every two weeks or once a month”.
“There is no health without mental health, yet mental health incorrectly gets put in isolation,” May points out. “We say ‘he needs to go and get some cognitive behaviour therapy’, but no, he needs to walk and stop drinking sugar and get some sunlight, connect with the environment. It’s how it all connects together, it’s not all in isolation.”
In fact, The Essentialists’ work in the wellness space often centres around values. “A lot of people know the values of their company but they don’t know their own values,” Kennedy says. “We say ‘If we took the job away, who are you?’ And they usually turn white.The thing we see is a lot of people are blaming work and go, ‘I don’t have enough time’, and then they see that actually they’re not driving this ship.
You need to know your values and make decisions from that, rather than allowing the external environment to determine your actions.” The external environment can, however, help facilitate better mental health. “I often say the behaviours don’t match the brochures,” May says. “One week a year, during Mental Health Week, it’s ‘I care about mental health and we’ll put on a few workshops’ and then the behaviours around the other 51 weeks say ‘we don’t believe in this enough to make it part of our DNA or part of our culture’.
“Mental health is a leadership and a business objective, not an HR objective. It has to be owned by the leadership team and the CEO because otherwise you go down the path of toxic culture and bullying. It has to be an absolute black and white ‘no, we will not accept this’, not ‘oh we will accept this because she or he’s a good performer’. Everything from behaviours around work hours, emails, work culture, meeting culture. Not just saying you have a health and wellbeing program and you support mental health, but living and breathing it.”
Joseph agrees: “Our research shows that many companies pay lip service to it and tick the box from the government point of view.” While he believes there are “notable exceptions”, he says businesses can’t afford to not take action. “I think the experts certainly tell us that, by 2030, mental illness and, by extension, ageing illnesses, will be greater than cancer and all non-communicable illnesses combined,” he says.
Experts anticipate great leaps in knowledge during that same time frame. We may not conquer the ‘why’,but we may get far closer to understanding how to treat mental illness effectively. “That is not entirely unheard of in medicine,” Joseph explains. “For example,polio, which has virtually been eradicated from the face of the Earth. To this day we do not know what causes the paralysis in the first place. Mental illness will become one of those areas where we become better at the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ to help people before we understand the ‘why’.”
The Black Dog Institute has enlisted engineers to help map the brain, and to use technology to collect the data to better understand those maps. “In 2013, President Obama said here we are exploring out of space and going to the stars and getting to understand the universe in extraordinary ways and we have never really adequately explored inner space, and we need to do that. It’s a very exciting frontier, but it remains a frontier.”
In the meantime, we need to move past the idea that mental illness is in any way weak. “That’s just pure stigma,” Joseph says, adding that businesses need to get on board: “Companies need to catch up with the science.”