Keeping the art of conversation alive

Dr Zofia Bajorek, Research Fellow

For those of us mature enough to remember the adverts, the phrase ‘It’s good to talk’ became synonymous with Bob Hoskins in the BT ad campaign. Although the advert was predominantly highlighting the services that BT could provide, there was (for some) this underlying message of connectedness — not just through technology, but socially as well. This simple act of being connected, how talking to someone can help to develop a social exchange, a relationship where trust and confidence can develop — and hopefully, with time, an element of openness to discuss anything, even mental health.

The phrase ‘It’s good to talk’ is still so apt 26 years on from the famous ad, and especially relevant on this ‘Time to Talk Day’, an initiative aiming to improve public attitudes and behaviours towards people with mental health problems, reduce the level of discrimination that people with mental health problems both perceive and receive, and to raise the awareness of mental health in various communities in which we interact to challenge the stigma. A large part of this awareness raising is around this concept of ‘talking’ — but this is not always easy for some — especially at work.

Time for a little self-disclosure. I have been diagnosed with anxiety and depression — conditions that can sometimes have an impact on, and can be affected by work. For me, my anxiety is displayed by needing to show people what I am capable of, verging on many occasions to extreme perfectionism (when I once completed the big five personality test I scored so highly on neuroticism that it verged on personality disorder — but did correlate highly with my conscientiousness). In some cases this ‘need to do well’ is what has compelled me in my employment to produce the work that I do. But it can also lead to a sense of failure if I don’t complete a task to what I think is my best ability and working too hard, leading to fatigue.

When it comes to ‘talking’ about my mental health I have learnt to generally be quite open about it, but it has not always been easy, and I can understand some of the barriers that people face. When I was first diagnosed, some friends and even family members just exclaimed, “you’re just over-sensitive and you take things to heart too much”. This was not meant to undermine what I was feeling (it did), but when talking about these comments I found this came from a complete lack of understanding of the medical conditions and what the implications are.

The media can also have a negative impact. Headlines about health and work recently have seemed to suggest that to take time off work because of ‘stress’ or ‘mental health’ is ‘pulling a sickie’, conflating a stigma that still exists regarding mental health and often other hidden fluctuating conditions. The recent signalling by the WHO classifying work related burnout as a legitimate diagnosis is really helpful as a validation for people who do need assistance (which may include time off work) to manage their condition.

When it comes to mental health at work, I have had mixed experiences and these did unfortunately come down to both organisational culture and my line manager. This seems to be a story that resonates with others. I have luckily been blessed lately with two great line managers. What makes them great? A number of factors including:

  • They ask how I am, and listen to the response
  • They don’t judge when I have a bad day
  • They ask what situations may trigger a response
  • They offer to help when they can
  • They provide clear and helpful feedback in a constructive manner

I have also been lucky that I currently work in an organisation that undertakes research into employee health and wellbeing, and we aim to practice what we preach. But I do understand that others aren’t so lucky and organisational and managerial responses can make someone who may already feel distressed in some way worse.

This is where initiatives like Time to Talk can have their place. By opening up conversations; by encouraging everyone to think about their mental health; by raising opportunities to have wider conversations about mental health and what organisations/managers/colleagues can do to help; and by raising an overall level of understanding about mental health, changes can be made.

So, today I encourage you to talk, it may not be easy, but it may be worthwhile. I have found that at work, it can be good to talk.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.

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