For the longest time, talking about mental health at work has been a taboo. Have you burnt out? Don’t mention it or people might think you’re weak! Seeing a therapist? You must have something seriously wrong with you!
In general conversations around mental health have been taboo, mostly because there has been a big misunderstanding around what it is. If people don’t understand depression, or view OCD as “quirky”, it makes it harder for them to empathize with those who are experiencing an issue. There has also been a stigma around mental health, with people being viewed as “crazy” or good to be booked into the psych ward. But the truth is, mental health is not as black or white as it’s portrayed.
In part this created a vicious circle: no one talked about mental health so no one understood it, and since no one understood it people weren’t comfortable opening up.
Luckily things are changing, and mental health is finally climbing its way up the priority list for government officials, health authorities, and employers. So here’s why you should start talking about mental health at work!
Stigma around mental health at work
Often there’s the perception that if you talk about mental health at work all hell will break loose. What do I mean by that?
- Tell someone you burned out and:
- You will be perceived as weak
- You will be blamed for it or told you don’t have good time management skills
- People won’t want to hire you
- Talk about any kind of mental health issue and you will be:
- Perceived as unstable and/or unreliable
- Outcast by the rest of your colleagues
- Judged, and thought of as “crazy”
- Taken off projects etc.
Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves, and that’s why it’s harder for people to open up about their experiences. Studies show that nearly nine out of ten people with mental health problems say that stigma and discrimination have a negative effect on their lives. But don’t let that stop you! Of course, it’s scary to be vulnerable and talk about, or bring such a topic to the table. Trust me, when I first started writing these blog posts I was terrified of publishing them…
I also understand that jobs are our livelihoods, and a lot of variables in our lives are tied to them. For example: being able to pay rent, caring for our families and children, being able to buy food, travel etc. So it’s natural that we are less inclined to take risks at work.
But in fact, mental health is already present in the workplace whether we talk about it or not. People are already experiencing problems, be it burnout, anxiety or depression, it is simply under the radar, or hidden. It’s just that everyone is paying the price for the silence: employees are suffering and struggling to get proper help, whilst employers are experiencing turnover, lower productivity or paying out sick leave.
That’s why we need more people to help break the stigma by speaking up, to make it a safer space for everyone.
How talking about mental health at work helps
Here are the reasons why I believe talking about mental health helps, both in and out of work.
- To raise awareness: the more we talk about it, the more people will realize that – for example – burnout is more common than they think. It will also help people understand that burnout (or other mental health conditions) can happen to anyone. You don’t have to experience trauma or be “born with it” to be affected. The more we can raise awareness, the more we can help people be prepared to deal with whatever issues arise.
- For others to feel less alone and create community. My main motivation in sharing my experience was for people to know they weren’t the only ones suffering or going through some crazy times. So often, feeling alone causes us to doubt ourselves, to hide what we’re feeling, and to soldier on… This can quickly spiral with people closing in on themselves, worsening their condition. Knowing that many more people than you’d think are facing similar experiences, can help people open up, inform themselves about what they’re experiencing, seek help, talk to others…
- Helps to break the stigma. Quite simply, the more we make it a normal part of conversation, the more people will become used to it. If we discuss therapy, coaching, even medication more often, we will become more accustomed to accepting what people are going through and the steps they’re taking to get better. Similarly, it should help minimize the number of surprised or shocked reactions, changing for a more supportive approach.
- To educate. In addition to raising awareness about the topic, it helps educate people on what mental health is or isn’t. No, it’s just all schizophrenia. But what are schizophrenia and bipolar disorder? How can you help someone going through that kind of experience? Etc. etc. All of this can be broached in conversation.
- To create a safe space. Starting a discussion around mental health at work makes it safer for others to open up. If done well and consistently, then gradually everyone should feel comfortable to share they’re experiencing something, ask for help, take a mental health day… without fear of reprimand. It’s psychological safety on an even higher level.
- To create change. Most importantly, by talking about mental health more openly we are creating the change. As Ghandi said:
Be the change you want to see in the world
And that is exactly what we can do.
What can you do to support mental health at work?
You may not feel comfortable sharing personal experiences, and that’s fine. Or you may not have experienced any mental health issues yourself… The barrier to entry doesn’t have to be high in order to make a difference. Here are some simple things you can do:
- Talk about it: bring the topic to the table. Ask people what they think, bring up some stories or articles you read, share examples of positive work being done… Start a conversation with your manager, your peers, or if you’re feeling bold enough ask Leadership what their take on it is… Just get started and see where it leads.
- Send resources. You can share articles you’ve read, podcasts, links to charities or other organizations… You can share these directly with individuals, or across your organization for example in Slack or an internal newsletter. This takes away the element of sharing a personal experience, while still helping to educate and raise awareness.
- Suggest training. Nowadays more organizations are offering training or support to employees, either through 1:1 coaching or mental health first aid courses. You might suggest to your manager, HR or leadership that they invest in a course for your team or company-wide. Again, having external people come in and talk helps make it less personal, all while ensuring people are learning about the topic.
- Be open… Both open minded, and open to share. Entering conversations about mental health with an open mind will help others feel more comfortable about sharing. Likewise, when it comes to vulnerability if you are able to be open first, others will be more inclined to be vulnerable with you.
By now I hope that you’re convinced of why we need to talk more about mental health at work, and are ready to get started. Together we can help break the stigma and create a safer space for everyone.
There is no need to set the barrier extremely high or put yourself under pressure to be an advocate. It starts with the simple things and small steps that will little by little make a difference.