Ongoing media coverage regarding the importance of student mental health reminds us that the issue is now firmly a priority for large institutions whether they are educational, professional or otherwise. Here’s what workplaces can learn from this recent mental health conversation:

1. “Mental Health” Does Not Have to Mean Psychiatry or Medication

Discussions of mental health in the workplace are often framed by the assumption that “mental health” is best dealt with by a psychiatrist and treated by medication. Canada is one of the most highly medicated societies in the world. For the record, “Psychiatry” studies the brain, mental illness and any chemical imbalances that cause this illness. “Psychology” studies human behavior, motivation and action. While a mental health issue may be psychiatric, it may also be psychological, that is, a product of how the person views and interprets the world around them. This may be more effectively treated by therapy, a change in lifestyle and a general alteration in how the person makes sense of their world.

The default reliance on medication as a tool to address mental health issues has longer-term negative consequences, including on individual’s stress threshold.   

2. The Individual is Responsible for their Stress Threshold

One of the most commonly cited sources of poor mental health is stress. What should we do about this? It is helpful to keep in mind that “stress” is the experience of feeling overwhelmed, of not feeling able to complete a task or tasks in the time allotted or given the situation. Stress is a product of how the person interprets reality. One person’s stress level is well within another person’s comfort zone. This is not a failure on the first person’s part. It is often a case of different emotional wiring. Some people are more easily agitated by noise, others by tight deadlines.

The point here is that when a person says they are stressed, it is good to remember that they are experiencing stress. It is a function of their interpretation of a situation. This interpretation may well be reasonable, but they are responsible for their emotions. It does not follow that institutional change is needed. There are two possible ways of addressing this: reduce workload or increase threshold. The key point is that, just as the answer to every mental health problem is not medication, the long term cure for stress is not necessarily reduced workload.

3. Reframing is Key: Using the Double-bind

“Reframing” is a key way of changing our stress threshold. “Reframing” means changing one’s perception or interpretation of a situation. It is a practice commonly used in mediation and therapy and was popularised by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in their early work on Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP).

As an example, if a person says they are stressed about a tight deadline and can’t do a job on time because it won’t be up to their standards, a good question to ask might be “so, do you want to be dissatisfied by the quality of your work or have your boss unhappy with you?” This kind of question is sometimes called the “therapeutic double-bind”. It’s deliberately asked to confront a person with the fact that how they have interpreted reality leaves them in a no-win situation. A perfectionist sees life as a constant struggle between their standards and other’s agendas. The objective is to see how their interpretation of the situation is guaranteed to make them unhappy. This, in turn, puts the responsibility back on them for changing how they see things.

In this case the perfectionist may realise that they want neither to do bad work nor to have a boss unhappy with them. As a result they may resolve to apply their perfectionism to one aspect of their work (getting it done as well as possible within the given timeframe for example). Or they may resolve to work in an area of the firm where their perfectionism is better able to be used for their own and the business’ benefit (for example, quality control). The point is that reframing helps a person recognise when they are a prisoner of their values.

Organisations as Well as Individuals Need Good Mental Health

Mental health is not only an individual matter; it is a collective matter too. Organisations need to look not at how they are addressing and supporting the individual and at what their group health level is like. Doing so will help reduce the number of individual complaints and issues. Not doing so will cost everyone more in the long-run.