What Homeland Can Teach Us About Mental Health in the Workplace


I’m a massive fan of Homeland, and part of what makes it so watchable for me is Carrie’s struggle with both her dedication to her job, and the effects of being bi-polar. The constant battles around whether or not to medicate, her unexpected and inappropriate behavior and the brilliance at what she does may be dramatized for viewing figures, but also serves to remind us of the difficulties faced by the millions of working people who similarly struggle with their mental health.

Current figures show that 25% of us will experience some aspect of mental ill health in the course of a year. A staggeringly high proportion, reflected in figures from ACAS which show that 91 million working days a year are lost, more than any other illness.

The CIA is not the best example of a supportive employer, having just instigated the incarceration of Carrie in an inpatient psychiatric hospital against her will. I’d like to think that outside of primetime drama organizations do better, but I’m not sure that they do.

The Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health has reported that 10 million of the 91 million working days lost were due to problems caused directly by sufferer’s work or working conditions. Job related anxiety, long hours, the threat of redundancy, office politics can all have a detrimental effect that can grow to a major problem if that person is unsupported. When you go somewhere you feel anxious, five days a week, joy in life can quickly dissipate. The extreme end of this has led to the Coq d’Argent restaurant in London becoming known as a suicide spot after several burnt out bankers have taken their own life by jumping from it’s balcony. I know myself from working with city based clients that the hours they are expected to put in are completely untenable and I don’t understand how Human Resources can be so in-effective as to allow this to become accepted practice.  But then maybe I am being naïve? Personnel Today reported in 2012 that more than 75% of HR Directors had no formal process to deal with stress and anxiety in the workplace. My own anecdotal evidence backs this up and  suggests that appropriate support and understanding is patchy at best.  Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised; the recent furore over Asda’s “mental patient” Halloween costumes offended many people suffering from mental illness. Statistically 35,000 of these would have been Asda employees which I think demonstrates the woeful scale of ignorance amongst large organizations. A situation which was reflected by a  Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) “Employee outlook” report in 2011.  Only 25% of the 2,000 employees surveyed believed that organizations would encourage them to speak openly about their mental health problems and only 40%  felt confident to admit that they had a problem. The result of this is that staff are generally forced to carry on working, a phenomena now being measured as “Presenteeism” . Working whilst ill invariably means that staff are less effective and although they might be at their desks, they actually account for even more lost days in productivity terms. And of course their health suffers more and often the end point is a complete mental or physical breakdown which could have been avoided if the culture of the organization had allowed them to seek help earlier.

But is there an alternative? The CIPD survey also reported that  22% of employees who were open about their health problems felt that they were sacked or forced out of their jobs as a result. Many more may change jobs to avoid having to confide in their employers, either way the annual cost of staff turnover for mental health problems is currently calculated at £2.4 billion, nationally.

Surely, it makes more sense for organizations to foster an environment where staff can be open about the state of their mental health? A culture which supports the mental health of staff would have a positive effect on the individual and reduce the lost productivity of the organisation. The infrastructure exists to do this with HR as a profession in it’s own right and access to a myriad of Employee Assistance Programmes in many organisations.

Improved health and increased productivity are all good right? So are we really left to conclude that this sorry state of affairs is entirely down to stigma in the workplace, amongst educated, professional people?

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