Talking about Mental Health at Work: 3 Tips to Make It Easier

Our mental health is just as important as our physical health, and it affects how we perform at work. So why aren’t we talking about it there?

We’d tell our boss if we had a cold or surgery coming up. But bringing up our emotional wellness? For any of us that feels like crossing a line.

There is a stigma when it comes to talking about mental health at work. It might be that we don’t want to be perceived as unstable or incapable. We may be worried about getting fired. Or we’ve been conditioned to keep a “stiff upper lip” and just “push through.”

A recent Harvard Business Review article relates: “because professionalism has long been associated with being stoic, rational, and unemotional…most people are used to passing up opportunities to discuss emotions and build authentic connections at work.”

Adam Grant, organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, sums it up well: “Many people believe that whatever their mental health challenges are, they don’t belong in the workplace.”[1]

Yet given the shocking state of mental health in the U.S., we know these discussions are absolutely critical.

How can you start to normalize talking about mental health in your organization? We have a few suggestions.

  1. Create safe spaces.
  • Mental Health Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) provide a forum for discussing mental health and elevating awareness across the organization.
  • One-on-one meetings between a manager and a direct report should start with a pulse check of how things are going—both at work and at home.
  • Team huddles should include 5-10 minutes of talk about what’s going on in people’s lives and how they’re feeling.
  • Workplace social media groups dedicated to mental health get the conversation out in the open and allow employees to share their experiences.
  1. Give managers the right skills and tools.

Just because someone is a manager doesn’t mean they have the skills—or the appetite—to talk with employees about sensitive issues like mental health. Here’s where some training and skill-building come in. The goal is not for managers to become mental health counselors, but rather, to help them talk with employees about their concerns and point them in the right direction to get more help.

A short online course, toolkit, or series of tip sheets can help managers feel more comfortable in this space. Topics could include:

  • Why mental health is so important;
  • What to do if you notice signs an employee may be struggling;
  • Tips for what to say and what not to say; and
  • Education about the mental health resources and benefits available at your company.
  1. Make sure leaders walk the talk.

As with any behavior change at work, employees may be reluctant to start talking about mental health until they hear their leaders talking about it too. Hearing a person in a position of authority and power tell a story about mental health helps build a culture of compassion and empowers employees to speak up about their own experiences. Videos and town halls are two forums where this kind of storytelling works well.

Leaders should also model good mental health habits themselves – like blocking time on their calendars for exercise, meditation, or family time; disconnecting while on vacation; and setting clear work boundaries. These cultural cues give employees “permission” to prioritize mental health in their own lives.

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As many say these days, there are some good things that have come out of our experience with the pandemic. Raising awareness about the importance of mental health is one of them. We’ve still got some work to do when it comes to talking openly about it in the workplace. But with continued focus, addressing mental health will soon be recognized as a key part of employees’ overall wellbeing.