Learning Curve: Mental health at work

It's a problem that isn't always recognised in the workplace.

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

What is it? As we head towards 'Blue Monday' (16 January), tipped as the most depressing day of the year, it is worth pausing to think for a moment about the less clearly visible health issues that can affect people at work. Depression, the 'black dog', is an illness that can go undetected by sufferers and colleagues for extended periods. Gradual ups and downs of mood are common, but extended lethargy, anxiety, extremes of mood and feelings of despair are not. In Britain, we praise the 'stiff upper lip', and urge each other to 'keep calm and carry on'. But this is bad advice if you are unwell.

Where did it come from? 'When the melancholy fit shall fall,' wrote Keats in his poignant ode on the subject. The poets have known about depression for centuries. Hamlet, whether he is faking it or not, describes it well: 'I have of late - but wherefore I know not - lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises.' The looser term 'madness' has been used to describe those who no longer fit in, who keep themselves to themselves or behave in an eccentric manner. But we are not so primitive these days and are more sensitive to people struggling with their mental health. Aren't we?

Where is it going? More and more public figures, including business people such as Lord Stevenson, are choosing to speak up about their experiences. Silence is as big an enemy as ignorance or prejudice. Alastair Campbell is another prominent person to have gone public. 'It is a horrible illness for which there is not enough understanding,' he has said. 'The nearest I can come to describing it is that when it strikes, you feel dead and alive at the same time. But I am content that I have learned to live with it.' This month, we would do well to think a bit harder about the subject.

Gradient: A very steep and rocky eight.

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