Looking for clues

We’ve all experienced it.

That person who invades our personal space – chatting loudly while oblivious to our silent scream “too close, too close” or the person lost in the flow of telling you their life story starting at the age of two and they haven’t noticed you stopped listening 20 minutes ago.

Our ability to read the body language of others helps us to connect at more meaningful level and to understand what might be going on for them. Failing to notice those clues means you miss the signposts indicating the other person’s emotional state and mental wellbeing.

While that might not matter so much if they are in a happy place, what if they are struggling with anxiety, depression or are on the fast track to burnout?

Would you recognise if your partner, a family member, a friend or a colleague were depressed?

Would you know what to do if you were concerned they might be depressed?

As a medical practitioner I was trained to look out for those clues and I too missed them on occasion. Like the middle aged lady going through menopause whose hot flushes and relationship issues with her daughter were making her life unbearable. My focus was on helping her to find relief from her symptoms and better sleep. I didn’t appreciate she was severely depressed.

I didn’t see.

I didn’t ask.

Globally, depression affects over 350 million people worldwide and is the leading cause of disability. According to Beyond Blue around 1 million Australians have depression and 2 million have anxiety in any given year. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate – it can affect anyone.

In the workplace depression alone costs the Australian economy over $12.3 billion dollars each year.

Depression and anxiety can vary in severity. Help is readily available, yet it is not always sought, for a variety of reasons. Despite the increasing prevalence of mental health programs in schools and the workplace, the statistics suggest more people are experiencing mental health challenges than ever before.

Why?

There is no single answer.

It is thought the way we currently choose to live and work i.e. our environment, is contributing to rising stress levels in our fast paced, complex and rapidly changing world. Too much stress over a long period of time reduces our ability to cope with our daily challenges. Little by little those minor irritations and low mood escalate into a quagmire of negative thoughts and everything takes on more of a negative hue. We forget the sky is blue because we get stuck under all those grey clouds.

What causes us stress?

That will be different for each one of us, however worries about job security, organisational change, dissatisfaction about our work, toxic workplace relationships all play a role.

Despite mental health being spoken about more openly and the stigma gradually reducing, many people still struggle to get through each day, putting on a mask so that to an outsider all appears well.

Why?

Because despite the offers of help/counselling at work, sometimes there can be a lack of belief that it won’t affect future promotion, career prospects or insurance premiums, and, that we will be judged weak by their peers. Social pain hurts as much as physical pain.

Getting better at finding the clues.

The solution might seem daunting because of the scale of the problem, but it doesn’t have to be. My wish is to see the creation of a brain safe environment in every workplace.

When we feel safe, we feel more relaxed, our mood is elevated and like a yeasty loaf, performance rises to the top.

Conversely, being exposed to chronic severe levels of stress results in our brain’s natural plasticity working against us. Ruminating or being stuck in negative thought patterns strengthens those pathways. The amygdala, part of the brain’s limbic system associated with mood regulation, when hyper-stimulated whether through intense positive or negative emotion, enlarges. It then becomes harder to access your prefrontal cortex or executive function, meaning it’s more difficult to retain logic and reasoning or to access previous memories and experiences.

The policy has to be (Brain) Safety First.

1.     Build awareness at the individual level of how to elevate mental wellbeing and resilience through creating better brain health. Much mental illness is potentially preventable.

2.     Learn to recognise the early warning signals and have a strategy in place to reduce the risk of a downward spiral.

3.     Look for clues in others, that they may not be themselves and are putting on a brave front by noticing that change in their behaviour and performance: that they are more disengaged from colleagues, appear tired all the time, never smile or perhaps look sad. We are all busy and often get caught up in our own agendas – but all it takes is a few seconds to notice other people around us. How are they today?

4.     Start a conversation with open-ended questions and ask how they are. It’s important to give the space needed to avoid being fobbed off with the “I’m fine” routine and a fake Mona Lisa smile.

5.     Be an open ear and offer hope. How we feel at any given moment is temporary and can change. Being listened to with genuine attention and compassion goes a long way in the journey to restore mental health and wellbeing.

Does your workplace provide mental health training to all staff, and provide access or referral to mental health counsellors if needed?

A high performance workplace achieves success; growth and prosperity, by ensuring all members of the business or organisation enjoy the combination of physical, mental and cognitive health.

Mental wellbeing is one essential component of organisational health.

Are you looking for clues?

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