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Where does the responsibility for mental health lie?

It’s a question that we’ve been asked by businesses frequently over the years.

Does the responsibility of an employee’s mental health lie with the individual, or with the business? 

If an employee is struggling, who is responsible for ensuring that the right steps be taken? 

These questions often, understandably, comes from a place of pressure or of the unknown.

Suddenly this big mental health thing has exploded into everyday conversation, and all eyes have turned to businesses to see what they’re going to do about it. 

It’s also meant that employees feel more comfortable opening up at work, and we regularly hear from those in HR or Leadership positions that they are having more mental health-related conversations than ever, but don’t always know what to do or say. 

They feel a pressure and a responsibility to get it right. 

To make sure their staff are okay. 

To deal with cases of mental health issues.

And, of course, to also wear their business hats and make sure that the business needs are held at the same time.

The short answer to the question, for us, is; an individual is responsible for their own mental health. However, a business has a responsibility to ensure that they are supporting their employees and their mental health needs. 

It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one.

Employees spend a large portion of their lives at work, and their work will have an impact on their mental health, and that has to be acknowledged. 

But, crucially, the final responsibility for an individual’s mental health, wherever they’re at on the spectrum, lies with themselves.

You can see a snippet from our Employee Handbook below – we give people the invitation for them to be their full selves and to share where they’re at, but no one is forced to do so. 

We’ve all heard the phrase “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”, and it’s the same with individuals and getting support for their mental health. 

The truth is, people need to want to do the work on themselves in order for that work to actually happen.

And it’s not a business’ responsibility to force people to do that work if the individual isn’t ready. 

I didn’t go to a therapist for over 12-months because I didn’t want to accept I was struggling and I didn’t want to do the work on myself. 

It was easier to ignore what was happening and to blame the world around me, rather than accept things were a little off-kilter and needed some work & attention.  

It didn’t matter what others may have told me to do or what the articles online may have advised.

It wouldn’t have even mattered if someone had locked me in a room with a therapist – I wasn’t ready to open up and be vulnerable in the way that the particular work I needed required. 

And it’s the same for anything else that people can do for their mental health, whatever point of the spectrum they’re at – they need to want to do it.

So a business can help support individuals on their journey, and they have a responsibility to help create the space for them to do this, but it’s the individual’s job to step into that space. 

It’s also worth highlighting that it really is a journey. It took me about 14-months to move through the various stages of realising I had a problem, ignoring it, ignoring it some more, accepting it, researching it, getting it diagnosed, eventually finding a therapist that clicked with me, and then actually doing the work. 

It was only then, after all those months, that I truly accepted responsibility and stopped shirking it off onto the people & situations around me.

It might take time for an individual to accept responsibility and it might take time for them to find the right support that works for them.

But a business can be there to assist on that journey.

?The responsibilities of the individual ?

An individual needs to: 

Gain an understanding of their mental health needs, and what works or doesn’t work for them – this is a constantly evolving process, which can take time – I’m still figuring a lot of this out myself! Others may help with this too, such as a therapist

Ask others for what it is that they need to support themselves – although, they can’t ask for something if the business either hasn’t got it in place, or hasn’t created a culture where employees can at least have the confidence to ask for it if it isn’t there yet

Take the steps towards the support or help that they need – individuals can have all the support laid out in front of them, but it’s their responsibility to step into it

Do the work – A teacher can pass on their knowledge, but the pupil needs to sit the test. It’s not only an individual’s responsibility to step into the support, but also to ensure that they do the work on themselves that comes with it

?The responsibilities of the business ? 

A business needs to:

Acknowledge that they play a role, however small, in supporting their employees, both personally and professionally – the size of the responsibility will vary from situation to situation, but people spend most of their time at work, and often more time with their colleagues than their loved ones, so businesses must support them in this

Be a listening ear – those in HR or Leadership positions sometimes feel they need to “fix’ people’s situations for them, but often it’s best that all that’s offered is an empathetic, non-judgemental ear

Support people in understanding their mental health needs – it isn’t up to the company to figure out someone’s mental health needs, but they can play a role in helping someone understand them, perhaps by giving them a safe space where they can learn that

Not ignore what’s happening within their workplace – conversations about mental health are already happening in some form within the workplace, whether a business wants them to or not, so to ignore this is to ignore part of their business culture

Not try and force anyone down a certain avenue – it’s okay to let employees know what’s available, but they mustn’t force them to take a certain path

Get behind mental health – employees see right through lip service, so it’s important that a business, particularly its leaders, truly support mental health in order to create the right culture where employees can open up