Normalizing the Workplace Mental Health Conversation

Working in a high-pressure environment can be taxing on anyone, but when coupled with an underlying mental health issue, it becomes increasingly daunting to take on any professional challenge. Due to the stigma of mental illness, many people keep their inner battles hidden. They strive to remain composed and repress emotions in order to make it through the day. But when they get home, they are almost certain to crash into a troubling state.

When mental health issues arise, people often take time off work to make it appear as if everything is fine. Though this might be beneficial for their career in the short run, it can cause strain on relationships and negatively affect overall well-being in the long term.

Giving people the opportunity to finally end the silence and come out at work as living with a mental illness can dramatically change their professional and personal lives. With my employer’s support, people can share their stories and learn to accept their mental conditions while realizing that it doesn’t define them or their ability to perform on the job. It’s time we all start talking about mental health.

People are often considered brave for coming out about their mental health condition, and this notion isn’t wrong. In today’s world, publicly disclosing your condition means risking your career, friends, and livelihood. But it really shouldn’t be this way. Mental illnesses are common. They should not be viewed as an outlandish illnesses. Every year in the U.S., approximately one out of every five adults is affected by a mental illness, equating to over 30 million workers battling such a condition in the labor force alone.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this situation as it brings additional stressors and safety concerns like contagion risk, stigma and marginalization, and financial losses due to job insecurity, among others. Moreover, caregivers, essential workers, and people from minorities have been disproportionately impacted by these impacts on their psychiatric well-being during this period.

Regrettably, 8 out of 10 employees admit that the social stigma stops them from getting much-needed treatment. Left untreated, mental health problems can have catastrophic consequences both on employees through lower pay and expensive medical bills, as well as employers in terms of increased turnover rates, decreased productivity levels, and numerous absences due to sickness. Not only this, but unemployment also means reduced tax revenue for the state and the federal government.

In today’s society, we are faced with a mental health crisis at an almost unprecedented level. So how can we begin to tackle this problem? Understandably, there is no single solution; however, one action that could help initiate the healing process is simply having open conversations about it.

As an employee, it is essential to check up on your colleagues and be open with your manager about any mental health issues you may have. Employers should cultivate a workplace environment where mental well-being can be discussed openly, offer resources that promote healthy mindsets as part of their benefits package and make employees aware of the different options available to them. Finally, public officials need to recognize the impact policy has on improving employee mental health. They must support laws and provide funding for businesses to help their staff members thrive mentally and emotionally.

Collective progress can follow by communicating and understanding what needs to be done collectively as a community or organization. We need to take into account the full spectrum of what is needed, both in terms of helping those directly affected by creating awareness, as well as reducing stigma around mental illness.


Understanding The Impact of Mental Health and Breaking the Silence

As an employer, begin by assessing the situation. How familiar are your employees with mental health concerns? What thoughts or feelings do they associate with people who have these conditions? Do they feel empathetic, scared, or hesitant to reach out for help and discuss it openly in their workplace? Are those managers and leaders confident enough to approach someone if they suspect an employee may be struggling mentally without fear of judgment? If so, are they comfortable connecting that person with the necessary resources available to them as well?

Here are several methods to assess employee understanding, experience, and empathy:

  • Guarantee that your Health Risk Assessment (HRA) instrument takes into consideration questions about lifestyle and health behaviors, alcohol consumption, and other substances, as well as depression and anxiety.
  • Take the initiative to create a confidential pulse survey that inquires about employees’ knowledge and outlooks surrounding mental health, substance misuse, and the need for more workplace assistance. This will provide your company with an initial understanding of their thoughts on these topics.
  • Utilize an assessment tool that consists of questions pertaining to the mental health and well-being of your employees, company culture, access to care services, and leadership.
  • Analyze your corporate data related to Employee Assistance Programs (EAP). Take into consideration mental health and substance use disorder benefit claims, pharmacy spending, and the prevalence of disabilities caused by mental health conditions. This will help you establish if personnel affected with psychological issues are receiving necessary assistance and treatment.

People living with mental health issues should seek the necessary care they so desperately need. Not doing so can have a detrimental effect on businesses, leading to greater absenteeism, presenteeism, and associated disability costs, which will inevitably drag down bottom lines.


Raising Awareness and Sharing Information

This is the perfect time to begin or expand workplace mental health initiatives. Now that high-profile figures, from athletes and celebrities to corporate leaders, are speaking more openly about their personal experiences with mental illness, it’s become easier than ever for people to normalize conditions that were once stigmatized. Those who need help feel as though they can comfortably seek aid, while those around them no longer fear asking if “everything is alright.” With an increase in open dialogue on this topic, there has never been a better opportunity for companies and organizations alike to take action and be part of the conversation.

There are many potential strategies to analyze when it comes to raising awareness and sparking conversations. It’s key that you tailor your initiative with the culture of your organization in mind while taking into account industry specifics, employee demographics, geography, size, and more. Additionally, as you roll out this workplace mental health program, don’t forget about ADA compliance. Make sure those with speech difficulties or visual impairment have access too.


Here are some options for raising awareness:

Provide your employees with access to valuable resources. Here are the key elements that should be included in this exchange of knowledge:

  • Recognizing the warning signs and understanding mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety
  • How to initiate a conversation about mental health with someone in need
  • Understanding the importance of seeking help early to maintain control of the situation
  • Improving access to emotional, mental, and substance support services by connecting with an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
  • How to support and direct a co-worker toward getting help


Methods for sharing information:

  • Empower your employees by providing them with informative, captivating infographics that are easily accessible.
  • Ensure that your organization’s members have easy access to dedicated mental health resources in your company structure. These can include fact sheets, video clips, blog posts, and announcements.
  • Placing information on mental health in highly visible areas, such as office restrooms or employee newsletters.
  • Include links to community-based services and external programs so users can find additional help outside of their work environment.
  • Integrate information about mental health into all messages and other communications related to employee health and well-being.
  • Showcase the importance of mental health in your employee newsletters or other publications. Feature stories from leaders to drive home the fact that conditions relating to mental health and substance abuse can affect people at all levels within a company, promoting an environment where it is safe and acceptable to talk about such issues openly.
  • Invite representatives from local organizations to your event and have them share personal stories about mental health conditions in order to help reduce stigma and dispel negative stereotypes.


We All Play a Part in Normalizing Mental Health Conditions

To foster a mental health-friendly environment, we must normalize the dialogue around it. By doing this, more individuals will recognize that their stories are not unique and they have support from others. We should make an effort to prioritize mental health all year round so that everyone can bring their whole selves to work every day. We all play a part in leading greater resilience in our workforce and businesses, as well as creating a firm foundation for brighter prospects in the future.


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The Union Workforce Initiative is for educational, training, and awareness purposes only. This is not an Employee Assistance Program. We help build awareness within the workforces of employer/employee assistance professionals, substance abuse professionals, nurses, doctors, and other educational professionals.