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Mental Health Chats Need to Start at Work

Imagine you are working in the office on a few tasks that your manager has assigned to you. These tasks require a greater level of diligence and effort than usual, since you will need to communicate with a wider variety of people across different departments in order to fulfil your objectives effectively. 

It’s a particularly challenging time at home now too; your partner is grieving the loss of a loved one and your kids have started primary school, requiring you to wake up earlier to drop them off before arriving at work. To make matters worse, the client you are also doing work for has asked you to send a presentation over earlier than expected. 

As the days go by, you find it harder to wake up in the morning, to show up for work and complete the tasks that are required of you. You feel stressed, anxious, desperate and fatigued. You wonder if you should notify your manager of the pressure you’re under right now, and if so, how do you do it? Do you mention that your mental health is suffering, or give a different reason? And if you do bring it up, how do you start that conversation?

This is the norm for many at the moment – we’re constantly being asked to do more, with less. It comes as no surprise then that one in five Australians (21%) take time off work because they feel stressed, anxious, depressed or mentally unhealthy. These conditions are common and are responsible for costing Australian workplaces approximately $10.9 billion per year.

On the whole, people with poor mental health want to be at work, yet struggle to be there. When they show up, they have difficulty concentrating, communicating, juggling tasks and may even get cranky with clients and colleagues. The manager may not know how to have a conversation with them and the employee is uncertain as to whether their boss will support them, stigmatise them (“We’re all stressed mate, it’s part of the job”) or manage them out of the organisation.

The reality is that we don’t talk about mental health in the workplace until we’re past the breaking point. A reason for that is that we’re taught to be resilient and “soldier on” at work, all the while maintaining a good “work-life balance”. If your life is anything like mine, it contains things like stress, separation, bills and tiny bits of food that get stuck in your teeth. Yet we soldier on and go into work, even when we feel drained and unproductive – presenteeism.

Let’s go back to that example and let’s assume that you decided to tell your manager honestly about how you’re feeling – you tell them that you are feeling very stressed out, anxious and struggling to cope at work. Your manager says “Sorry to hear that – please take some time off and make sure you see a GP.” The conversation stops there.

So, off you go to see your GP. You tell them about your mental health challenges and they send you home with a medical certificate, a diagnosis and a prescription for medication. The next couple of weeks at home are spent staring down a bottle of pills and watching Donna unapologetically cheat on Eric in The Bold and The Beautiful. Scary stuff. Now whilst your GP’s approach is well-meaning, it’s not the first place that this chat about mental health should take place. It needs to happen in the workplace.

You go back to work after your time off and you’re greeted with an inbox full of 263 emails and a calendar teeming with “catch-up” meetings. Lovely. Your boss wants to bring you up to speed on what you missed and you start to feel a sense of dread come over you – the same sense of dread that led to your “sick leave”. You try to stick it out for a few weeks but you can’t seem to shake these feelings of emotional distress. You think about opening up to your boss but feel uneasy doing so, on account of their bluntness last time and fear of losing your job.

So the question is this: what can leaders do to create a more psychologically safe environment, where employees feel comfortable to talk openly about their mental health and feel confident that they will be accepted, heard, validated and supported?

Leaders: take the initiative and talk about mental health openly, even when your employees are in great spirits and your team is doing well. Share your stories of dealing with mental health publicly and make that a part of your culture. Open up a dialogue with your peers about mental health and don’t be afraid to bring your authentic self to work. Be confident in being vulnerable.

If your employees see you putting in 50, 60, 70 hours a week without any admission of distress or fatigue like some stoic and invincible workhorse, how can you expect them to feel safe opening up about their own mental health? This behaviour promotes a culture of burnout, toxic pride and insecurity. 

Leaders who talk about mental health universally gain respect. Leaders who learn how to look out for the signs, how to ask and how to listen have more productive teams. Leaders who advocate for mental health not only catalyse a cultural shift within their organisations, but also externally by inspiring others to follow in their footsteps. 

Regular, simple, informal conversations about mental health nurture a sense of belonging and connectedness, which has been shown to promote wellbeing in workplaces. Conversations with superiors, peers and direct reports should be about more than work; they should involve asking what they did on the weekend, how their dinner was last night and how their family is going. 

“Checking in” is so crucial, since it helps us notice when things seem off with someone or their behaviour has changed. Furthermore, it can make the person we’re talking to more comfortable to open up and simplify a previously “difficult” conversation since we’ve already demonstrated our interest and care in their life outside of work.

Whilst leaders play a hugely influential role in supporting a mentally healthy workplace, so do human resources departments. Unfortunately, there is a significant knowledge gap between leaders and employees in terms of their awareness of the existence of workplace policies, procedures and practices to support workplace mental health. Over one third of employees (35%) are unsure or believe their workplace has no policies, procedures or practices to support mental health, with 81% of leaders indicating the opposite.

Most organisations now have Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) – counselling services which come at no cost to employees. Whilst their services are required to remain confidential, employees typically are required to request assistance through their manager or supervisor, acting as a barrier to seeking help. Employees that accessed EAPs saw improved productivity and reduced absenteeism. However, only 5-25% of employees on average access their EAP when they need help.

EAPs are also usually made aware to employees after the breaking point, when issues have become overwhelming in nature. However, there is evidence to suggest that e-health technologies may be able to remove some of the barriers typically experienced with traditional workplace mental health services, such as cost, fidelity of the intervention process and accessibility. e-mental health programs intervene early, with therapy/peer support/counselling through telephone, video-conference and/or text-based platforms. KPMG noted that e-health interventions have the potential to deliver an ROI of $1.60 for every one dollar spent.

Establishing compassionate and accessible workplace mental health services is incredibly important, however it’s something that should be promoted early on – something that becomes a core component of an organisation’s onboarding process. This means that new employees will know, straight from the get-go, that this is an organisation that values mental health and wellbeing and promotes it from the second a new employee walks through their doors; so that when issues crop up, employees have the tools and knowledge at their disposal early on to access the right support.

Two thirds of employees and leaders acknowledge that there is a shared responsibility in creating a mentally healthy workplace. We’ve talked about employers fostering a safe environment, but what can employees do when they start to struggle?

You have no obligation to tell your employer about your mental health condition if it does not affect how well you do your job. You should tell your employer when your mental health interferes with your capacity to carry out the requirements of your role, when your mental health affects your safety or that of your colleagues and/or when your mental health is affected by the nature of your work.

Common sense would dictate that time off work is the best solution for anyone with mental health issues, but this isn’t always the case. Most people with a mild-moderate mental health condition can still function at work, perhaps with some reasonable changes to their duties, and can actively benefit from being there.

The feelings of belonging associated with being at work, the avoidance of isolation otherwise felt at home and sense of achievement that you might find from your productivity at work can actually have positive effects on your mental health.

So if you’re at work and see somebody struggling, say something. Ask them “How are you?” and offer to take them out for a coffee. If you think you’re struggling, say something. It’s not a once-off conversation – it’s a cultural shift that takes time. But the wonderful thing is: everybody can do this. As an employer, all you need to do is give your people permission to speak safely – and be prepared to listen.

1 thought on “Mental Health Chats Need to Start at Work”

  1. A great quote keeps coming to mind as I read the article – Before we have psychological problems, we have problems. Having conversations in a hybrid dynamic changing ( in and out of lockdown) environment can be exhausting for all involved. Great article highlighting the subtilties that can wear us down whether an employee or a leader. Thank you

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