14 April 2011
Mim Gaetano, Mars Inc
Emotional Wellbeing – R U OK?
“Each time I would fall into this big black hole, it became more and more difficult to climb out of. It was energy sapping and debilitating. This was all getting to be too much. Life was no longer fun and enjoyable. Why was this happening to me? What could I do to escape? This is not the person I am. This is not who I enjoy being.”
The words above are an extract from a journal I wrote during one of my “dark” periods a few years ago. I didn’t know it at the time but I was suffering from depression. Not long after my diagnosis and treatment I was asked to complete a research paper as part of my Conflict Resolution studies and decided to do some research on this illness that had so profoundly impacted upon my life.
I am going to use some of those findings to talk briefly about depression and its causes and then consider how it can affect us in the workplace. Depression is only one form of mental illness but I have chosen it as my focus here not only because of my own personal experience, but also because a discussion of the impact of this mental illness can provide some guidance as to how we can approach mental health issues generally in the workplace.
What is depression?
How do we know we are experiencing depression and not just feeling down or burnt – out? According to the World Health Organisation:
“Depression is a common mental disorder that presents with depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, low energy, and poor concentration. These problems can become chronic or recurrent and lead to substantial impairments in an individual’s ability to take care of his or her everyday responsibilities.”1
The Annual Review of Psychology2 explains “burn-out” in this way:
“Burnout is a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job, and is defined by the three dimensions of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.”
As we can see there are overlaps and links between depression and burn- out which pose that classic chicken or egg question: do we burn out because we are depressed, or do we get depressed because we are burnt- out? The answer to this will vary from person to person.
In a physiological sense, depression is most commonly associated with low levels of the hormone serotonin, and common anti-depressants work by slowing down the body’s absorption of serotonin, thereby increasing their levels.
So how do mental health issues play out in the workplace?
From a personal perspective
If you are in a role that spends a great amount of time dealing with other people’s emotions (HR professionals, counsellors, health nurses etc), and perhaps ignoring your own, it is not difficult to see how you may become emotionally exhausted and burnt-out, which in turn can lead to episodes of depression. There is a belief among psychologists that “individuals in the caring profession are experts at one-way caring.”3 So if you hope to function effectively in a professional role, it is essential that you learn and practice the art of self-care. Effective self-care will be different for each individual. We each need to find that “re-energiser” that works for us. Here is a list of some non-medicinal activities that research shows can be helpful in treating depression.
- Exercise – if we were looking for a low-cost, non-invasive and safe treatment for depression, it would be hard to bypass the simple daily walk or any other form of suitable exercise.
- Pet Therapy – attempts to measure and quantify the benefits of pet therapy with hard scientific data are ongoing, but if depression is linked to feelings of loneliness and isolation, the touch, cuddles and responsibility that come with caring for an animal companion may be powerful medicine.
- Gardening – apart from the exercise and vitamin D overload through sun exposure that gardening provides, research has shown that microbes found in the earth’s soil can have a similar impact on the brain, as do common anti-depressants.
- Journaling – keeping a journal may help to alleviate some feelings of isolation and anxiety, as the cathartic experience of letting your thoughts out on paper can provide an opportunity for the writer to be themselves, whilst sorting out complicated feelings, in a private space.
- Slowing Down – many people are finding it increasingly difficult to “switch off” once they leave work. Mobile phones and email devices mean we can now be contacted virtually anywhere in the world. Having some time to yourself after work can allow the brain to relax and reap the benefits of peace and quiet.
- A Higher Being – having a faith can help as it may mean spending regular time in the company of other similar faith people, taking some regular “time out” from your hectic life to reflect and slow down, and making an attempt through faith to understand and cope with whatever is happening in your life.
From a workplace perspective
The OH&S Act requires that we provide our employees with a safe working environment. It is understandable that we immediately think of physical safety but it is important to understand that the Act also covers emotional wellbeing. Statistics will tell us that one in five people experience depression at some stage of their life. With that as a backdrop, here are some points to consider for your workplace:
- Channels of Communication – how effective are the channels of communication in your workplace? Do you think your people feel “safe” talking about issues that might be impacting their emotional health, be it workload, bullying or harassment? Do you have both formal and informal channels available to them and are these well communicated and actively supported by senior management? Do your people have access to external channels, such as Employee Assistance Programs? Being able to talk to someone about how you are feeling is the first step to addressing any illness.
- Job Roles / Expectations – in our demanding workplaces, where trying to do more with less appears to be the norm, are you confident that the bigger jobs and increased expectations of roles created via downsizings or restructurings are actually fair and reasonable? Do we have reasonable rest breaks for people and an environment which allows employees to “switch off” during these breaks? Do we encourage behaviour that has employees responding to emails or phone calls whilst on leave or after hours/weekends?
- Education – most manufacturing workplaces would inevitably do a reasonable job of educating their people on areas that can create physical injuries. I am sure we have all been taught how to lift correctly by bending our knees, to switch off power points when removing power leads etc. However, what do I do and where can I go if I am feeling depressed or emotionally frail? Are there any outlets for me to reach out to? So the question here for us is whether we do enough to educate our people on emotional health as well as providing appropriate resources to assist in this area.
Two such initiatives that spring to mind are the public education activities that the beyondblue organisation are able to arrange (see http://www. beyondblue.org.au/index.aspx?) or a recent initiative called RUOK Day (http://www.ruokday.com.au/ content/home.aspx). Both of these activities can help to create a work environment that encourages people to better understand, and therefore deal with, emotional concerns they may be experiencing themselves or are seeing in their work colleagues.
Emotional “injuries” can be just as debilitating as any physical injury, but unfortunately they can be quite invisible to many people, including those who are suffering from the illness. The past has also seen a “stigma” associated with admitting to having a mental health issue and this has prevented the proper diagnosis and treatment of many sufferers. Thankfully, with programs such as those mentioned above, this is now starting to change.
If your position in the workplace is one that involves caring for and/or counselling people you are likely to have a higher probability of suffering depression or similar emotional illnesses. Also, if the symptoms I mentioned above resonate with you, I would strongly suggest you seek some professional help and adopt a program (be it medicinal or non-medicinal) that works for you and that can help blow those dark clouds away.
If your position in the workplace is in the human resources field, I would encourage you to consider emotional wellbeing in the same light as physical wellbeing and to review your workplace policies and practices in this area. Are you doing all that is fair and reasonable to provide a “totally” safe workplace?
PCS would like to extend a special thank you to Mim for his valuable contribution to this edition of Strateg- Eyes. PCS was proud to make a donation to beyondblue in December 2010 to support this very worthy organisation.
Mim Gaetano is one of four corporate ombudsmen for Mars Inc. His work covers the regions of Asia-Pacific and Africa, India and the Middle East. He has been an ombudsman for eight years and has been with Mars Inc. for almost 24 years. Prior to this current role, he has worked in R&D, Finance and Commercial with Mars Inc. Prior to joining Mars he held the role of Regional Chemist for Chesebrough-Ponds Intl, responsible for the Asia-Pacific region.
- http://www.who.int/mental_health/management/ depression/definition/en/
- Maslach C., Schaufeli W., Leiter M., Job Burnout, Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 52: Feb. 2001, pp. 397 – 422
- Bradshaw D., Becoming a helper, 2007, Thomson Brooks/Cole, USA, p 5.