It may have happened to you before.
A colleague asks, “How are you?”
You say, “Oh, I’m fine.”
Internally, you know that that was an automatic response. You’re not actually fine. In fact, you’re having a tough time at work but it’s getting increasingly difficult to talk about it.
If you’ve had this experience, know that you’re not alone. In a 2019 report from Mind Share Partners, it was found that nearly 60% of 1,500 U.S. adults working full-time experienced one or more of a dozen negative mental health symptoms. Some of the most commonly cited symptoms were anxiety, depression and eating disorders.
The study also stated that 60% of employees had never talked to someone at work about their own mental health. What’s more, only 25% felt comfortable talking to HR and senior leaders about their mental health concerns. From a generational lens, Baby Boomers were less likely than others to feel comfortable having such a discussion.
Even with hybrid and distributed work gaining popularity, burnout remains high, employees are quitting in record numbers, and companies are scrambling to figure out ways to keep people engaged while working remotely. It’s unfortunate that it took a whole pandemic to elevate the state of employee mental health, but one thing is for certain now: leadership support for mental health is here to stay.
This is important because even if you don’t feel like opening up about mental health issues, it makes a huge difference to feel like you can. You have the surety that your job will not be jeopardized, nor will you be belittled because of it.
Why is mental health awareness in the workplace important?
According to Mind, at any given point in time, one in six workers is experiencing common mental health problems, including anxiety and depression.
Many variables contribute to workplace mental health issues, including irregular work hours, financial or role-related uncertainty, and social or cultural factors. However, unless they are empowered to do so, most employees do not want to voice their distress aloud – especially if they feel that such behavior would be frowned upon. It all leads to increased absenteeism, loss of productivity, and harmful use of substances or alcohol.
There’s data to back this up. A recent WHO-led study finds that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy approximately US$ 1 trillion each year in lost productivity. It also found that workplaces that promote mental health and support people with mental disorders are more likely to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and benefit from related economic gains.
Work-related mental health risk factors
You can’t see mental health challenges, but they are taking place all around you.
Some risks to mental health in the workplace include:
- Very few health and safety policies in the company
- Toxic communication practices
- Less autonomy at work
- Limited support for employees
- Inflexible working hours
- Unclear tasks or company objectives
- Lack of financial support
Consequences of these problems can cost employeers a lot of money and time, and increase employee turnover.
Tips to help you have mental health conversations at work
Talking to your boss or manager
It can be nerve-wracking to talk to your superior about challenges with mental health, given that you’re depending on your job for an income to survive. If there’s no work-related reason to disclose it, then you don’t have to open up about any mental health challenges you’re going through.
However, if your state of mind affects your job performance, your output, or your relationship with your co-workers, then it’s a good idea to have a conversation with your boss or manager. Let them know that you take your job seriously and enlist their help in getting you back to a place where you're feeling comfortable and confident with your responsibilities. When your manager or boss has a clearer understanding about what you struggle with, they may be able to help tailor your environment such that it optimizes your chances of success. It could also reduce the stress you experience on a daily basis.
Talking to your direct reports
When speaking with people you supervise directly, the best approach is to be specific about what exactly they might need to know to complete their responsibilities, and how your mental state might affect this.
Being open with your direct reports may encourage dialogue about mental health and foster healthier work relationships. It also helps increase transparency and creates a safe space for people to express themselves.
Talking to your co-workers
Your comfort level with your colleagues should determine how at-ease you feel about talking about your mental health with your colleagues.
That being said, if you do open up to your co-workers, you might get an additional avenue of support and you might even connect with people who are going through their own mental health struggles.
5 ways to promote mental health awareness in the workplace
1. Remove the stigma
Create a psychologically safe space for your people - one that encourages them to be their authentic selves, where they feel valued, and where difficult conversations can take place without any judgment. Employees should be able to open up if they want to, without there being an expectation of it. Normalize having vulnerable conversations. After all, when life throws you a curveball, it might be hard to keep the wall between one’s personal and professional lives.
The most impactful action would be to have leaders draw on lived experiences to break the stigma. Start a podcast, conduct a webinar, post a video, or create blog posts; whatever medium you choose, share these stories far and wide – and seek internal feedback after every story.
2. Develop a strong, open company culture
People care about their wellbeing – and nothing fosters employee wellbeing as much as an open, inclusive, and supportive workplace mental health culture. This is not only impactful for the employees but also for the future success of the business.
Focus on actually improving employee wellbeing. The concept of a performance review might strike fear in the heart of an anxious worker, but if you set the tone for regular, unstructured check-ins, then your leaders can make sure to provide support where necessary. It also helps to have personalized plans that support the wellbeing and growth of the person. E-learning or in-person sessions to help people spot signs of mental health struggles, knowing how to listen and signpost to support are also essential for building a strong company culture.
3. Take a closer look at workplace policies and practices
To reduce stress on your people, be as generous and flexible as possible in updating policies and practices in reaction to the pandemic. For example, spend some time reviewing policies and norms around flexible hours, paid time off, email and other communications, and paid and unpaid leave. When you make any changes to these policies, communicate that you are doing so to support the mental health of your employees, if that is the goal. Ensure that all employees have access to health plans that include adequate mental health coverage.
4. Leverage physical wellness programs
Research suggests that doing exercise releases feel-good chemicals called endorphins in the brain. Even a brisk 10-minute walk can improve one’s mental alertness, energy and mood. HR teams have tried to leverage this aspect and introduced group exercises, yoga, and other activities to give employees a much-need source of endorphins and stress relief.
Implement a fitness-minded culture by providing health screenings, subsidizing gym memberships, or creating fun incentives like offering a prize to the person with the highest step count. Of course you’re not limited to these ideas - it’s more important to get creative and promote fitness in a way that aligns with your company culture.
5. Promote self-care
Apart from the formal HR initiatives mentioned above, your company can use more fun and light-hearted methods to improve workplace wellness. One such example is a self-care bingo where the squares might read, “left work at a reasonable hour,” “vented to someone I trust,” or “took quiet time.”
Encourage people to take time off and post a photo on the fun Slack channel. Leaders have to pave the way here - they can block off a half hour to go for a walk, meditate, or simply detox.
Mental health is an important, yet often overlooked part of employee health. With the right strategies, it is possible to create a more positive and productive office environment. The more we can do to support the mental health of our people, the better we can help them to perform at work.
Companies have a responsibility to ensure that the wellbeing of their employees is well taken care of. One of the best ways to do this is by promoting and encouraging employee mental health. If you want to learn more about this, or are looking for effective tools and resources to use in your workplace, we hope you find this blog post to be helpful.