Talking about mental health at work

Why it’s important to talk about mental health at work.

The awareness and understanding of mental health in our community is growing daily. But the stigma of talking about it openly still creates barriers to getting the understanding and support that’s so important.

This can be especially true at work. People might not feel comfortable talking about their mental health at work or be seen to have something that might stop them from doing their job well.

The stigma related to mental health remains, and people may worry about how others view or judge them.

But it couldn’t be more important. On top of simply providing the care that someone needs, experiencing sadness, stress, anxiety or depression can stop anyone from feeling fully focussed on their work.

Not addressing mental health issues can lead to burnout, disengagement, more sick days, and a less cohesive and productive workplace.

It’s good for everyone.

Providing a safe and healthy work environment is the responsibility of every business. Mental health is a vital part of this. Not only does it benefit every worker, but it’s also good for business.

A study by PwC showed that by successfully creating a mentally healthy workplace, an organisation could expect, on average, $2.30 in benefits gained for every dollar invested.1

That’s because a happy, inclusive workplace where people feel safe (both physically and mentally) and supported is a more productive one, with less absenteeism and better employee loyalty.

The more you talk about it, the easier it is.

Conversations in the workplace about mental health are essential to creating a positive and productive culture.

They are important because it increases understanding which in turn helps reduce the stigma and allows people to be more open about how they are feeling.

Being able to feel you can talk about your own mental health in a safe and comfortable environment is an important way to help anyone who is experiencing challenges and provide the help and support they need to address them.

a woman talking to her psychologist

How do you talk about it?

One thing that can help reduce the stigma and make it easier to discuss mental health is understanding how common and ‘everyday’ it is.2

  • Around one in five Australians is affected by mental health issues every year.
  • Almost one in two will experience a mental health issue in their lifetime.

The fact is, if you don’t suffer from mental health issues, someone you know or work with will. There should be no shame or embarrassment about admitting you’re not feeling good.

It affects everyone regardless of age, gender, job, or background. It’s just like physical illness. And that’s a good way to think about it. We would often chat with colleagues about getting sick or a physical injury. Why should mental health be different?

Some tips to help these conversations:

  1. Normalise them. Regular conversations with your team demonstrate the company cares about their mental health and well-being. This can be one-to-one, in small or large group situations, and even on emails or internal communication channels. Whatever the environment, it’s about being open and honest. You want to encourage people to share their experiences. So to show it’s a safe and supported place to do this, you could first share your own experiences and challenges with mental health. You’ll find people will start sharing in return.
  2. Listen. When people talk about their own mental health and share their experiences, feeling listened to without judgement is feeling safe and supported.
  3. Don’t be the expert. You don’t have to be the therapist and ‘solve’ the issues. You’re doing enough by being open, listening, and creating a safe environment. You can direct them to mental health resources that could help them, such as employee counselling or wellness activities like yoga or meditation.
  4. Promote wellness activities. Providing and encouraging participation in group wellness activities, like yoga, meditation, fitness, painting, and so on, shows your company prioritises mental health. Not only are these activities good for you, but it also allows everyone to get to know each other on a more personal level. As people get to know one another better, they’re more likely to open up and talk about their mental health challenges and experiences.
  5. Have regular one-on-one follow-ups. It’s a simple way to keep the conversations going. Ask them how they are. How is work going? Is anything causing issues? Do they need any support? And remember to be open and share your own feelings to encourage them to share theirs.

Ultimately, the most important reason to talk about mental health in the workplace is so you can address it and understand the support your team needs. It will make a huge difference in their lives and make a big difference to your workplace culture, health and productivity.

To find out more about the importance of talking about mental health at work and how to go about it, we asked our Psychologist April Jones.

Why is it important to be able to talk about mental health in the workplace?

On average 1 in 2 Australians will experience a mental health issue during their life.

Given we spend more hours at work during the week, than time with our friends and family, talking about our mental health has become essential. Our workplaces need to understand everyone’s health issues to be able to accommodate for times when we are not at our best.

Feeling safe and supported at work with no judgements or fear of job security can allow individuals to be engaged, reduce absenteeism whilst working on improving their mental health status.

How do you create an environment or culture where people feel comfortable talking about mental health?

It is my belief the culture and confidence in a healthy workplace environment comes from the top, down. It is not enough to have policies or communication about mentally health workplaces. Some advice for leaders:

  • Set the example and model good behaviours in their workplace, particularly when it comes to work-life balance.
  • Develop an openness to listen to the needs of their staff, host activities that promote good mental health and access to external support resources.
  • Lead with a genuine interest in working with their employees to find solutions, offer resources or flexibility.
  • Encourage respect and active listening for colleagues who do disclose anything about their mental health, avoiding criticism or judgement.
  • Normalise conversations about mental health through education, at all levels.  Education is the foundation which enables change of mindsets, beliefs, and incorrect assumptions about mental health.

a group of 5 business colleagues socialising and chatting candidly

How do you talk about it?

A good place to start can be mentions of mental health in internal communications and team meetings, actively putting it on your business’ agenda.

You can encourage open and direct conversations with people that you are concerned about, for example:

  • 'How are you? I have noticed that you have been a bit quiet lately.'
  • 'I have noticed you have been off work for a few days. Are you OK? Can I help in any way?'

For those who are experiencing mental health issues, sometimes leaders cannot read the signs so you may need to be direct:

  • 'I haven’t been feeling myself lately. I am feeling very anxious and overwhelmed. Do you have time to speak to me about this?'

Who are the best people to talk to?

This can depend on the intensity of your distress.  However, talking to someone is always better than talking to no-one. It is harder to communicate and manage a challenge when it has become overwhelming.

It is helpful to be self-aware, recognising what influences your mental health, your triggers – enabling you to gain support sooner. Sharing your pain, issues, challenges with people you trust, that will listen supportively, and look to work on solutions with you is a great start.

If something is affecting an employee outside of work, does the employer need to know about it, or provide support?

Our work and personal lives are more entwined than in the past, with many of us working from home or work part-time. As a result, we are not always capable of separating significant happenings from work or home.

We often share details of our lives with our colleagues, however if you find something really affecting us it can be helpful to disclose to management.

This can help your leaders connect you with the right support through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or dedicated service such as Lifeline or Beyond Blue.

What should someone do if they don’t feel comfortable talking about their mental health at work?

The best advice is if individuals are struggling with their mental health, go to a medical practitioner. It may be worth having additional discussions about physical as well as mental health issues.

You can explore your options - a referral to a psychologist, medication, or any other health tests. Speaking with a GP can also help to understand your condition and be able to communicate this more confidently and effectively with your organisation.

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References

1 PwC with Beyondblue, Australian Government Australian Mental Health Commission, Creating a mentally healthy workplace - Return on investment analysis, Final Report 2014

2 SANE 2021, Talking about mental health in the workplace