OCD and beyond: ending mental health stigma in the workplace

Neurodiversity is a superpower, says Colin Minto, Global Early Careers Talent Attraction Lead at HSBC and renowned spokesperson for people with OCD and other mental differences.

In light of OCD Awareness Week and his newly-founded OCD October initiative, Colin discusses the characteristics of OCD and how employers can work to support their people by becoming more open, understanding and accepting of individual ability.

What is OCD?

"OCD is classed as a mental illness or a brain disorder. It’s when your fight or flight mechanism is unfortunately triggering when it shouldn't. The best way I describe this is if someone jumped out from an alleyway when you're walking home, with a balaclava and a shotgun, you're going to get a reaction, right? It's going to be 'run hide, scream, attack…', whatever it may be. That is your fight or flight mechanism kicking in.

"If you're born with OCD, you probably won't know about it until your early teens. Before then, your stress levels are only bringing you to a low level of your 'pressure cooker'. You may be a bit quirky, worry about things a little bit more than others because you're pre-conditioned to do so, but it's not necessarily problematic. But when things build up and you put yourself under considerable pressure and strain - big life events, someone passing away, new job, buying a house, getting married, exams - your fight or flight mechanism triggers and can become much more active and protective. It's trying to do the right thing for you to try to save you, and whenever it triggers, it will be that same panicked feeling, that same dread, that same fear that something catastrophic is going to happen."

What does OCD feel like?

"When this mechanism is triggered, the brain tries to mitigate the risk with an urge to do something; the ritual, the compulsions. One of the things most people would understand as a trigger for OCD is a difficulty with germs. Someone with OCD might touch a table and think, 'there's germs on that table and therefore I’ve got that on my hand', then have that panic sensation that there could be a catastrophe here. It could be me ingesting it and dying, or me putting it somewhere else and someone else ingesting it and dying. And therefore, the consequences of that are that I've got to live with that for the rest of my life; 'I'm probably going to go to prison…'

"Catastrophe, catastrophe, catastrophe. All I've got to do is wash my hands and it all goes away. So you do. And your body goes, 'Phew, washed my hands. Fantastic.' It then knows, and your brain, your fight or flight mechanism, your threat system, says, 'Brilliant! I could save Colin. Again. Let's do it again.'

"And it knows every time I have a problem with germs, I just need to wash my hands. So I do. And you feel fantastic. The body is relieved, and you get addicted to that feeling. So you do it again and again, and then you touch something else. You wash your hands and then it will go, 'I want to save Colin some more. So let's ask him whether he washed his hands well enough.' So you kind of think, 'Oh, maybe I didn’t… right. Let's do it again.' And you get caught in this loop."

Has the pandemic exacerbated mental health conditions?

"When the pandemic started, I was using all my coping strategies, so I was fine. When my OCD flared up at Christmas 2020 and I had a massive breakdown, it bizarrely wasn't anything to do with cleanliness or germs. What actually triggered me, and has affected so many other people, is the complete change in your life. Being locked down, being isolated, being lonely, being taken away from everything that you know, and do, and enjoy, and having to just persevere. It had a massive, long-term effect for me."

"The pandemic has affected so many people, and its legacy is a new pandemic: mental health and mental ill health."

"Young people especially are having so much difficulty – that's one of the reasons why I wanted to join HSBC in leading their early careers attraction strategies, because I know what a torrid time people have had through school and university. This new world of work is so different from pre-pandemic times, namely the working from home culture, and also they're coming into it in the middle of a cost of living crisis as well. It’s inevitable that there will be repercussions, and there’s so many reasons why the 'pressure cooker' is kicking in for people – everyone I speak to now.

"There’s been a report out recently from Deloitte saying 70% of leaders are considering a new role because they want more focus on their wellbeing. Arguably they're the solution as well, right? If they're leading big organisations, they should be the ones championing this and driving this, which is a message I’m hopefully going to get through OCD October and what I do with my OCD unplugged talks.

"We are facing a major crisis. There's access to guidance and support, but there are so many people needing it that it’s in short supply. And generationally, some still don't want to talk about it because it's 'not something you talk about'."

Are employers responsible for supporting their employees' mental health?

"I think they've got a huge responsibility and a huge part to play in it, but they're just one of the stakeholders. There's also personal, societal, medical, therapeutic and support network responsibilities.

"But yes, we spend so much time at work, and there's a responsibility to make sure that people are given all the support they need if they are having difficulties, but equally, we need to structure the world of work so it's not contributing to the pressure cooker. We've got to reduce stress in the workplace, and start taking mental health more seriously."

What can employers do to support their employees' mental health?

Create the right environment

"We've got to have the right environments and conditions for people to work in and thrive, and make sure that all these things are optimal for all employees:

  • the treatment that they're given by management
  • management’s understanding of their role
  • the amount of work they’re asked to do
  • the timescales that they're given to deliver that work
  • the support and tools they're given to do that work

"Anything that's suboptimal must be eroded. We've got to build communities. We've got to be compassionate. We have to come into work knowing that if someone's doing something wrong or not doing something you would expect, we should think what may be going on in that person's life."

Build a culture of open discussion and compassion

"You've got to create the right culture and environment. You don't suddenly one day say, 'I'm going to change our culture' and tomorrow it's going to be completely different. You've got to educate people, not just about mental health and mental illness, but just about what humans go through in life."

"You've got to treat people the way you want to be treated yourself."

"You've got to look at people's behaviour. And rather than immediately judge, you've got to say, 'why is that happening? They've been driven to that. Is someone doing that because things aren't quite right here, or am I treating them unfairly?'.

"I think the pandemic has helped us with that; people have experienced themselves and are starting to worry about the effect it has on them. Therefore, they can also then start to think about other people. Take hybrid working, for example. I put a post out recently saying I can't wait to start commuting again (I cannot work from home, I hate it), but some people love the fact that they can stay at home."

Offer professional support

"Employers can make access to the medical profession a lot easier by providing access to support services; using organisations that have access to medical professionals, psychology, and advice, including on finances and relationship difficulties.

"En masse, the government should be doing this – and it does – but businesses can do this as well. When crisis happens, acknowledge that, and make sure that those people are given the support they need to be able to go on that journey of recovery."

Harness everyone's differences

"I think the best leaders on the planet are the ones that lead people to deliver their optimum and create an environment where people can be themselves and do their thing. Stop micromanaging; stop employing people for their skills that you've found in the interview process and then suppress them by telling them to do their job in a certain way.

"Look at CEOs of major corporations. What do they do? They inspire. They’re probably not going into sales meetings as good as the sales director. But they're playing their part and they’re inspiring, and that's what we've got to do."

"We've got to look at people for what they are, who they are, and what they can bring to the party."

"Bring that out, and create an environment where that can thrive. Don't get in the way of it. We know that so many things in the world come about and become successful because of a mistake. I think we just have to be much more open and just relax a bit; not be so governed to the point that we're restricting people with innovation and flair."

"No-one is immune to mental illness. There's no vaccine for it either. But all of these things, they're solvable. They're management interventions, they’re leadership interventions. If you can take all those out, then you're going to have less of the pressure cooker stuff and you're going to have happy people saying wonderful things about your business. Hey, you’re going to recruit easier because everyone's going to tell the world how awesome you are as an organisation."

To learn more about Colin's awareness work, head his OCD October and OCD unplugged pages.

Or, read Colin's top tips for employees tackling mental health issues in the workplace.

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