Unconscious bias, a bias that quite often, those that demonstrate it through their words and actions are blissfully unaware of.
For every conscious bias we hold, there are a multitude more unconscious, illogical, hidden beliefs and assumptions whispering to us in the area of mental health issues, this is even more acute. In fact it is one area in which it is almost impossible to discuss the difference and both can do damage, not only to the individual but also potentially to your organisation.
The statistics show that we probably all work with someone experiencing a mental health problem and that in any one year one in four of us will experience some type of mental health issue – some mild, some less so. With the pressures upon us mounting daily the reality is anyone can have a period of time when depression, anxiety or a combination of both may affect us.
And yet often hidden bias about people who suffer with mental illnesses, such as “These people are flaky, weak or cannot be trusted with key projects or clients” are the very people you are limiting the career of by assuming they cannot cope, when in fact they may well be the one person with the key idea that will ensure success for your business. Where would be now without Steve Jobs who suffered with obsessive compulsive personality disorder or Winston Churchill who referred to his “black dog” and claims that it played a major role in World War II with it being claimed that it was only a recurrent episode of depression that allowed him to realistically assess the threat of Germany.
Allowing your bias to assume that someone with a known mental health issue cannot function at work is a kin to assuming a wheelchair user cannot travel. Look around you now, if you can see around 8 people it is likely that 2 of them have mental health issues, and even more likely that they are keeping it to themselves. And is it any wonder, with the comments, jokes and career damaging decisions that might happen if word got out.
We must create workplaces where we accept human frailty and not condemn others simply because they have, at this point in time, a health issue of any sort.
As part of our training workshops designed to create inclusion for all groups, we often ask leaders to explore their vulnerability. The reason for this is if I can admit to, and understand where I feel most vulnerable, I can better connect and support those around me that are simply experiencing vulnerability in a different way.
So what should organisations practically do?
Firstly, there must be some acknowledgement that bias exists, by raising awareness and starting conversations is the first step in preventing discrimination and offering a truly inclusive environment for everyone to have the space to be themselves. Secondly, sharing some of the statistics mentioned here in a non-judgemental way, reminding your team, and yourself that someone experiencing this is likely to be sitting not so very far away. Thirdly, discover more about the issues, offer great workshops and resources designed to reduce the stigma. Fourthly, discourage any jokes, comments or stereotypical judgements around mental health, actively doing this creates a safe space for those needing support to get through a tough time to openly approach you.
Finally, when they do approach you, remember no assumptions. Deal with them in the same way you would with anyone sharing the fact that they are ill with you. Support, listen and ask how they want you to help.
Reducing bias around mental health has to be done. We cannot ignore something so prevalent any more than we can ignore our bias against it.