“Eh, I’m not really having a good mental health day,” I said as I got my first cup of coffee one Monday. A coworker had just asked me how I was doing, and I decided to respond honestly. They were kind, and said that they were sorry to hear that and asked if there was anything they could do. Honestly, I felt a bit better just having said it.
I took my coffee back to my desk and sat down to find a message waiting for me. “Thank you for what you said in the kitchen just now,” a completely different coworker wrote. “I’ve never heard anyone talk about their mental health at work. I’m not having a good mental health day either, and it helped to hear you say the same thing.”
Even before the pandemic, the majority of Americans in the workforce strongly agreed that it was safer to remain silent about their workplace stress. As of June 2020, financial risk and feelings of isolation remain the top threats to American employees' mental health. A high rate of stigma around mental health and speaking up about stress in the workplace combined with concerns about financial and economic stability in our current climate mean we’re far from normalizing the conversation about mental health in the workplace.
And yet, talking about mental health at work can increase trust between coworkers, provide a safe space for those who are struggling in silence, and create a positive and open culture where employees feel like they can bring their full selves to work.
So, what steps can you take to normalize the conversation about mental health in the workplace?
You’re under no obligation to share anything about your mental health with your employer. Under the ADA, potential employers cannot ask questions about mental or physical conditions in an interview and, once you’re on the job, it provides the right to job accommodations as long as they don’t cause “undue hardship” for an employer. To gain those accommodations, you will need to discuss some aspects of your mental health with your company and those aspects should be disclosed before there is any issue, such as an impact to your job performance.
It is worth it to consider why you might feel like you don’t want to talk about your mental health at work. There are plenty of completely valid reasons, but if you feel like your boss, teammates, HR department, or company wouldn’t welcome and support you, it might be better in the long term to find a workplace that welcomes and supports you as you are.
When I was a manager, I was very clear with my teams that mental health was just as important as physical health. Just as I wouldn’t expect someone to come to work when they were sick with the flu or help move furniture if they had a broken leg, I wouldn't expect someone whose mental health is suffering to come in to work. One of the best ways to reduce stigma around mental health is to treat it with the same level of importance as physical health, and make it known to other employees that you feel that way.
What are you hoping to gain by discussing your mental health at work? Is it to reduce stigma, create a safe space for yourself and others, help a coworker, or encourage your employer to provide more mental health support and care? Figuring out your personal goals can keep you focused and give you the energy you need to have difficult conversations, discuss mental health with confidence, and voice concerns or make suggestions to company leadership.
If you’re in a leadership role, you have incredible power to create change at your organization. If you’re not, find someone in a leadership role who could be a potential ally. Meet for coffee or take a walk and ask them about their experience with mental health, both in life and at your current workplace. They might be able to better gauge the temperature of your workplace when it comes to opinions about mental health, provide some insight into company history or leadership positions on the issue, or commit to partnering with you to reduce stigma about mental health at work.
One of the best things you can do to normalize the conversation around mental health at work is to get employer and workplace buy-in! Here are some ways you can leverage the power of HR or your CEO to reduce stigma at work:
You have to take care of yourself first and foremost. If you’re on your own mental health journey, you can practice mindfulness tips to manage anxiety, learn how to manage work-stress at your desk, and practice self-care. If you’re looking for the right therapist for you, you can use our service to find your perfect match.
It’s a brave thing to do to try to normalize the conversation around mental health in the workplace. By laying out your goals, treating mental health with the importance it deserves, and finding leaders who can be in your corner, you can reduce stigma at work and create a safe environment where everyone can bring their full selves to the workplace.
Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.