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  • Writer's pictureIan Price

Is the emphasis on mental health missing the point?

Last month's report by Deloitte on mental health at work confirmed that one in six employees experience a mental health problem at any one time.

Nobody can quarrel with the virtue of employers talking more openly about mental health at work or providing help to employees that need it. The really big opportunity, however, lies in prevention. To help employees become less prone to experiencing mental health problems, we need to look at mental toughness, a concept decades old among athletes and psychologists but rarely used in the workplace.

Mental toughness is partly about resilience in the face of adversity but also our ability to "bounce forward" and learn to persist with grit and a growth mindset. For me, it is also about the ability to stay focused and deliver a great cognitive performance in a world of distraction. Some people have an innately high level of mental toughness. For those that do not, the good news is that it can be built.

On the assumption that mental toughness is normally distributed - like height - you would expect to see a bell curve distribution (see picture) with one sixth at the bottom end. This is the one sixth that may have mental health problems. It also follows that there is one sixth of the population at the other end of the curve who can withstand pretty much anything. These people have a high pre-existing level of mental toughness.

That leaves two thirds of employees who do not have a high level of mental toughness but do not have mental health problems. When life at work gets tough for any number of reasons (organisational change, pressure of work, setbacks) their lack of mental toughness can manifest itself in any number of ways: lack of engagement, retreating into one's comfort zone and avoiding risk, hiding behind "busyness". Interventions outlined in the Deloitte report such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy are not appropriate for these employees. What they need help with is building mental toughness: how to manage emotional reactivity, how to build confidence and resilience, how to stay focused under pressure.

One leader at a large employer recently shared with me his own employee bell-curve based on a recent survey. On this graph, the peak was not a comfortable bulge in the middle; instead, the whole graph was skewed towards the bottom with a tsunami of employees teetering on the borderline of having mental health problems. I see this a lot - employees that might be approaching burnout, are experiencing anxiety.

Rather than risk complacency and the feeling that mental health at work has been "fixed" as a workplace issue, we need to acknowledge that what we've done is point out the top of the iceberg. Investment in building metal toughness in the rest of our employees needs to be a priority.

Ian Price is a performance psychologist and, through his consultancy Recludo Consulting, a specialist in building mental toughness in teams. He is also the author of personal development book Head Start.

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