I spent monday and tuesday attending a conference on mental health in the workspace. Topics ranged from stress and depression to motivation and creativity. The speakers were psychologists, business managers, scientists and even a priest (Johannes M?llehave).
The quality of the individual sessions varied, but overall the conference was good. I am left with the impression that mental health in the workspace is now being taken seriously. 15-20 years ago companies started improving the physical working conditions, and huge progress has been made in this area. Mental health, however, has long been a taboo, in private life and especially at work.
Therefore it was very refreshing to hear Jytte Hilden (ex-minister and current cultural director of the Royal Library) talk openly about her 3 bouts with depression. The latest happened a couple of years back, and when she needed 2 months off from work to deal with it, the Royal Library gave her that. She also did something I admire deeply: Before leaving, she assembled her staff, and told them exactly what was going to happen. She believes that this made it easier for her to come back after the 2 months, than if people had been told a cover story.
It was also very interesting to hear Niels Due Jensen the CEO of Grundfoss (the worlds second largest producer of pumps with 11.000 employees worldwide). He talked about how Grundfoss fight stress in their employees, and how they try to help seriously ill employees. It was clear to see, that this is a company that cares for it’s people, above and beyond the bottom line.
However, I have one major concern about the way the issues of mental health at work are being handled. In most cases it’s a matter of trying to avoid something. Companies are fighting stress, they have programs against smoking and drinking or they are trying to prevent employee burnout. These are fine and essential pursuits, but looking only at what you are to avoid os not enough in my opinion. You could in theory create a workspace where nobody suffered from stress, burnout etc., but that does not automatically make it a great place to work.
I think we should try to define the qualities that we DO want present in our work, and try to envision a way of working together that will give people a positive work life. It’s more fun to create a future when you base it on something you want, than when you base it something you want to avoid!