In this edition of In the 1st person, we talk to Peter Diaz, CEO of the Workplace Mental Health Institute (WMHI). Peter is an author and accredited mental health social worker with senior management experience.
Having recovered from his own experience of bipolar depression, Peter is passionate about helping organisations address workplace mental health issues in a compassionate, results-focused way.
As a leader – he’s also personally prepared to start the conversation.
Hi Peter. Many entrepreneurs and business folk are driven to find solutions to their personal challenges. Can we ask: did your own mental health contribute to what you do now?
Yes. I know what it’s like to have mental health problems.
In the early 90s, I found myself in front of a GP who told me I had bi-polar disorder. I was dysfunctional and had suicide ideation. On paper, my life ticked all the boxes, but they were the wrong boxes for me. And, well … those boxes eventually became constraining.
What do experiences and organisations like yours tell us about our work and our society today?
Too many people are disempowered in their lives. Also, there is a bias towards medical solutions rather than psychological solutions. In workplaces, we need more autonomy, more power and decision making in teams. We need informed policies. In my experience, those are the organisations whose teams become psychologically and physically healthier.
So it’s about power?
Yes, but mental health is about having power over yourself, not over other people.
Sort of contrary to everything we’re taught to pursue, isn’t it?
Maybe in the past, but times are changing. We now need an application of power that isn’t the one we’re working with.
If you pay attention, businesses that do well today aren’t led by Machiavellian figures, but disruptors who do things differently. Millennials partly drive this. They’re interested in a meaningful, balanced life. Those businesses who don’t provide that will not be competitive.
Some may say stress and anxiety are the price of achievement. Are career success and personal success mutually exclusive?
No! Success to my mind is being financially and emotionally free. You don’t have to be stressed to get there, not if you’re psychologically prepared. And by that I mean proceeding in business with the right mindset. Ask yourself: what do you want success for? How will you use it to contribute to humanity? If it’s just about you, that is psychologically unsafe. You don’t have the right mindset. Stop pursuing. Stop searching. Find something. Begin again.
How can people truly break the stigma and talk about their mental health in an open, non-career damaging way?
Look, it’s hard. It took me a few years to ‘come out’, as it were. I hid my problems. I didn’t talk about them. When I did speak I’d lost the shame, and obviously now in my line of work it’s didactic to talk.
For others, it may not be so clear cut. If you are in a position where you’re comfortable and your performance won’t be impacted by talking, do so. If you’re in a position where it can weaken you or it’s professionally dangerous, find support outside the workplace.
If the environment isn't psychologically safe, what can managers do to support people struggling with mental health issues more?
I outline many strategies in the soon to be released book, Mental Wealth: a corporate manager's guide to workplace mental health and wellbeing. It covers the 7 pillars of a mentally wealthy workplace and one key thing that managers can do is encapsulated in pillar 3: nothing about me without me. This pillar is a catch cry from people with a lived experience of mental illness. People who have recovered and who have come forward and spoken about their experience. They said that one of the things that made their recovery so difficult was so called ‘helpers’ or ‘professionals’ who made decisions about their life, without their involvement.
Applied to the workplace, rather than excluding the person and making decisions about the person's career (and life) without them there, managers can make sure to keep an open line of communication with the employee, and engage in transparent conversations with them about their mental health and wellbeing, and what is required in the workplace for appropriate support and appropriate work performance. Managers need the skills to do this sensitively and effectively, and should be appropriately trained to do so.
At the organisational level, the application of this pillar means including people with a personal experience of mental distress in the design of workplace mental health policies and activities. Their personal experience can provide valuable insight into how a proposed activity or policy might impact individuals.
Join us in breaking the stigma and starting dialogue.