On managing mental health challenges in science

The start of the working week is probably not the best time for me to be visiting this topic, but it’s important to capitalise while the impetus is still strong. Fire in the belly, as they say. Ann Arnold (@ann_arnold) wrote this great piece for ABC news, providing advice for employers and employees about managing mental health in the workplace. This is a topic that resonates with me on a number of levels and I’ve recently found the motivation to start sharing my perspective and experiences. I hope this helps others to realise they’re not weird, or broken, or useless – this is a tough gig at the best of times and we need to support each other in order to get through it.

First things first. We need to get serious about mental health in science. Every place I have worked has been across their responsibilities for protecting staff and students against the risk of physical harm. I manage a laboratory and this means everyone needs to be inducted into the workspace and receive appropriate training before working alone. They must read the biological and chemical risk assessments, use appropriate PPE at all times and be aware of what to do in case of an emergency. In the office, we have regular ergonomic assessments and software installed on computers to make sure we take regular breaks. When I come to work I know that my body is safe. But what about my mind? We would never make someone stay in a lab that was on fire, but what about asking people to remain in a situation that’s causing them distress? Managers and colleagues need to be able to recognise the signs, be willing to offer genuine support and take positive steps towards improving the situation in the short and long term.

Recognising that someone is struggling with their mental health can be tricky. We’re all individuals who respond differently to pressure in the workplace. We also come to work as people with lives that continue when we leave at the end of the day. Try to put yourself in their shoes. Keep an eye out for changes in personality and mood. Some people are experts at repressing their feelings while others wear their heart on their sleeves. No prizes for guessing which one I am! It’s also really important to foster an environment that provides a safe space where everyone can raise their concerns and be heard. Ann’s article reminded me of an incident that triggered a change in the way I approach my own situation. My GP feels that my anxiety and depression are exacerbated by work stress, and encourages me to self-monitor and speak up when I notice the signs are pointing in the wrong direction. I can become overwhelmed when my workload becomes unmanageable – a situation familiar to many EMCRs. In a meeting of 20 or so individuals, I raised this as a concern not only for myself but because I could see it was also affecting others. Since I’ve become more aware of my own mental health issues I’m acutely “in tune” with what people around me are experiencing. A very mild superpower, if you will. My perspective was met with a chorus of laughter from several individuals which only stopped when I pointed out that their response was inappropriate. For many people, this would have shocked them into suffering in silence for the forseeable future. For me, it’s acted as the catalyst to expose how widespread and real this issue is within the scientific community.

Support can be given to your colleagues in many shapes and forms. Again, remember that everyone is an individual and it might take time to work out what you can do, if anything. Avoid the urge to jump in and be a knight in shining armour, there is often no easy fix and this approach can make things worse. My office buddy here in Adelaide knows that it helps me to hug it out when things are shitty. My “work best friend” in Sydney used to usher me out for the highly effective therapeutic combination of coffee and cake. I do miss that, it takes time to build up a relationship with someone you can trust. I know he is always just a phone call away. This is what works for me, but not everyone will want to talk about their experiences and that’s OK too. Not every situation can be rectified, and it’s often enough to know that someone cares. It’s important to be guided by their reaction. Don’t push too hard if they’re not able to talk about what’s going on, but leave the door open for a future conversation. Remember the difference between empathy and sympathy, and above all else, don’t point them in the direction of work-based counsellors! This is an example of dumbsplaining. We are well aware that these services exist and know how to access them.

Managers can go a long way towards creating a positive environment at work by offering “more carrot and less stick”. Take the time to learn about what motivates and inspires people. Encourage your staff and students by highlighting their achievements to others. Let them know they are visible and that you’re paying attention. Respect their expertise and listen when they offer feedback or raise concerns. Try not to put too much pressure on people and never push your own problems onto them. Communicate openly and articulate your expectations. Develop meaningful professional development plans and stick to them. If you make it easier for your staff and students to do their jobs to the best of their ability, you might just find it becomes easier to do yours!

I want to finish by saying I’m really appreciative of all the support I’ve received on social media. I made a new friend recently because someone was brave enough to reach out. I spent several years feeling isolated and alone, not understanding what I was going through and not knowing if there was anything I could do. That’s not the case anymore, and I can confidently say things are much better. As many others will know, mental health is a rollercoaster with unpredictable twists and turns. It is a constant process. Don’t suffer in silence. My private messaging is open on Twitter, please get in touch if you are in need of a virtual hug or something more.

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