Breaking the Ice about Mental Health at Work

Most people in the workplace know that having mental health issues can be hard, especially when you have to go to work every day and put on a happy face.

However, despite how common mental health concerns are, many people are afraid to talk about these issues at work, because they fear that they’ll be stigmatized by their colleagues or that they’ll be viewed as weak and unable to handle stress. This results in some people suffering in silence while they’re at work, along with a reduction in morale and productivity, which begins a vicious cycle.‍

Mental health affects everyone

You don’t have to be struggling with a mental health condition to recognize that it affects people all around you. But despite its prevalence, many people are uncomfortable talking about mental health, because they don’t know how to start a conversation or fear drawing attention to what may be considered personal issues. By talking openly and honestly about mental health at work, and breaking down stigmas around mental illness – you can make your workplace healthier and more supportive for everyone.

Let’s talk about it!

It’s estimated that 1 in 5 Americans suffer from mental illness in any given year.  But despite such widespread prevalence, American workers don’t tend to talk openly about their mental health problems. According to a recent study of more than 600 employees, only 16% say they feel comfortable talking to their employers about their mental health issues.

This is not surprising considering how much stigma still surrounds mental illness in our society. A 2013 survey found that nearly half of all people think it’s unacceptable for an employee to take time off work for depression or anxiety. In fact, many people are so uncomfortable with mental health issues that they’re willing to discriminate against those who have them: One-third would be less likely to hire someone with a history of depression and one-quarter would be less likely to promote someone with depression.

And these attitudes aren’t limited to hiring decisions – many people express discomfort around colleagues with mental health issues too. For example, one-fifth of respondents said they wouldn’t want to work closely with someone who has depression. Clearly there’s a lot of room for improvement when it comes to breaking down workplace stigma around mental health!‍

What does mental health really mean?‍

What is mental health? It’s more than just being happy. Most of us think we know what mental health means, but in reality there’s so much more to it. Being mentally healthy doesn’t mean you never feel stressed or down, or that you have it all together. In fact, there’s no one definition for mental health – it’s made up of several factors like physical and emotional wellbeing, relationships with others, ability to cope with stress and access to support services. People have different needs when it comes to maintaining good mental health.

As a result, why so many of us are so scared to discuss their own mental health? Sometimes, talking to co-workers and loved ones can be really tough. This is especially true if you’re experiencing a mental illness. But when you bring your whole self to work, it benefits not only you, but your employer as well – and it all starts with breaking down those barriers. So let’s talk about it!

Dealing with anxiety and depression

Anxiety and depression are both real but treatable mental health conditions. If you feel like your mood, appetite, or sleep has started to change dramatically, don’t be afraid to ask for help – others have been there before you. For many of us, it can take a lot of courage to seek treatment for mental health issues. However, your employees might just need a little push from you or others around them to get them on track. Studies have shown that depression impacts cognitive performance a whopping 35% of the time, which clearly impacts employees’ ability to function productively.

Why is it so hard to confront mental health?

Stigma associated with mental health remains a significant issue in today’s workplace. Many employees are reluctant to talk about mental health concerns for fear of being singled out and judged as weak, unfit or unable to do their job. But if we want to get serious about creating healthy workplaces, we need to address these fears head-on and acknowledge that stigma persists in all kinds of workplaces – large corporations, small businesses, public agencies and even not-for-profits.‍

Three strategies for better mental health

There are three important things to change in your workplace community to improve mental health:

First, develop a culture of openness. Even being willing to discuss these topics can seem intimidating and uncomfortable, so by gently moving the community towards open discussions about mental health creates a safer space.

Second, remove the stigma. With mental health issues impacting so many people, especially in today’s world, it’s important that everyone understands that it is common and that people with mental health issues can still be caring, wonderful, valuable parts of our community.

Lastly, support employees. Make sure that they can find resources they need, whether counseling, medication, or the physical accommodations necessary to protect and improve their mental health.

How mental health shows up at work

Mental health problems at work sometimes are visible – someone getting unreasonably angry, having a panic attack, or moping around the office. Other times, however, the mental health problems are much more subtle. Employees don’t get projects done on time, appear to be distracted in meetings, or quietly withdraw from relationships with their colleagues.

Unfortunately, employees are often told to snap out of it, or that their condition is a figment of their imagination, or not real at all. It’s easy for people to dismiss mental illness when they don’t understand what it looks like, how it feels, or how many people are affected by it. But there is no shame in having a mental illness – and there should be no stigma attached to seeking help.

Why is there so much stigma around mental health vs physical health

In many cultures, mental health disorders are equated with weakness or being crazy. This is because people do not understand that mental health issues can be treated through medication and therapy like any other physical illness. Also, some people think that anyone suffering from a mental illness must be violent. In reality, most people with depression or bipolar disorder are gentle and soft-spoken. The fact is that many people suffer in silence due to fear of what others will think if they were to admit their struggles. It’s important for all of us to start talking about mental health openly so we can reduce these stigmas together.

Let’s talk about how you can create an open environment where employees feel comfortable sharing personal information and asking for help when needed. To start off, I recommend having informal meetings over lunch or coffee to ask your team members how they are doing personally and professionally. You could also invite them to join a social group outside of work so they feel more comfortable discussing non-work related topics. Remember that there is no right way to talk about something as sensitive as mental health – it just needs to happen organically!

What does mental health look like?

Mental health is an incredibly subjective term. For some, it can mean simply having energy to get out of bed in the morning. For others, it’s a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Still others use it as a catch-all phrase to describe how they feel on any given day – happy, sad, frustrated…you name it. But what does mental health look like? How do you know if you have a problem? And what should you do if you do? It’s not always easy to talk about these things, but it’s important that we do.

Here are a few ways we can start breaking down mental health stigma at work. Don’t stigmatize mental illness: No one likes to admit they need help sometimes, and that goes double for mental illness. But there’s no shame in getting treatment for depression or anxiety or ADHD or whatever else might be troubling you. If someone has a broken arm, you wouldn’t ask them why they didn’t just get over it, so treat someone with depression with the same dignity and respect.

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