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How to Talk about Mental Health in the Workplace

How to Talk about Mental Health in the Workplace

Mental health is a touchy subject. No one really knows how to talk about it, especially in the workplace. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. In fact, talking openly and honestly about mental health can be really beneficial for both employees and employers alike. So, if you're wondering how to get started, here are a few tips to help you out.

What Is Mental Health in the Workplace?

Mental health in the workplace is often thought of as only referring to psychological wellbeing, but it actually encompasses emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing within a shared work environment. A mentally healthy workplace is one where employees feel supported and valued, and are able to manage stressors in a healthy way.

Why Is It Important to Talk about Mental Health at Work?

It's estimated that one in five adults in the US experiences some kind of mental health condition in any given year. [1] That means that there's a good chance that someone you work with is dealing with a mental health issue, even if you don't know it. And yet, mental health is still a taboo topic in many organizations. Here's why it is so important to know how to talk about mental health in the workplace:

  • Reducing stigma. Too often, people suffering from mental health conditions are made to feel like they are somehow to blame for their condition, or that they should be able to just "snap out of it." This is simply not the case. Mental health conditions are real, and they can be debilitating. By addressing mental health at work, we can help to break down the stigma and misconceptions that surround it.
  • Encouraging help-seeking. Talking about mental health concerns at work can be a great way to encourage people to seek help, whether it's from mental health services or from colleagues. When we talk about mental health challenges, we open up the conversation and make it less taboo.
  • Creating a supportive environment. Employees who feel comfortable talking about their mental health conditions with their employer are more likely to feel supported by their company, and less likely to experience job-related stress. This can lead to increased productivity and improved job satisfaction.

Why Is Mental Health Difficult to Talk about in the Workplace?

Mental health in the workplace is a topic that is often difficult to talk about. There are a number of reasons for this.

  • Not knowing where to start. For one, mental health care is often seen as a personal issue that should be kept private. This can make it difficult for people to open up about a mental health disorder. It often feels awkward as you might worry that you'll say the wrong thing.
  • Fear of appearing weak or vulnerable. For many people, their job is a huge part of their identity, and they may feel like they need to put on a brave face or act like everything is fine in order to keep their job. However, this can lead to even more stress and anxiety.
  • Fear of judgement or discrimination. People who suffer from mental health problems may be afraid to speak up for fear of discrimination or being treated differently by their colleagues.
  • Lack of resources. It can be difficult to bring up the topic with a boss or coworker, as they may not know what tools are available to them. Whether it's due to budget cuts or a lack of awareness, the lack of resources for dealing with mental health at work can be a major problem.

How Do You Talk to an Employee about Mental Illness?

  • Be direct and honest. As an employer, it's important to be direct and honest when talking to direct reports about mental illness. Avoiding the topic or using euphemisms when describing common mental health issues will only make the situation more difficult. Instead, be open and let your employees know that you're there for them and that you're willing to work with them to find solutions.
  • Use language that is inclusive and respectful. When talking to an employee about mental illness, avoid using terms that are stigmatizing or offensive, such as "crazy" or "insane." Instead, focus on the individual's symptoms and how they are impacting their work. For example, you might say something like, "I've noticed that you've been having quite a few absences recently. Are you struggling with anything?" This opens up the conversation and allows the employee to share whatever they are comfortable sharing.
  • Ask questions. Make it clear that you are open to talking about mental health. This can be as simple as including it in regular conversations or sending out periodic reminders that you are available to talk. Simply asking your employees how they are doing sends a signal that you care about their wellbeing.
  • Check in regularly. When an employee opens up about mental health issues, it can be a difficult conversation for both parties. However, it is important to follow up after the initial discussion in order to ensure that the employee is feeling better.

How Do You Talk to a Colleague about Mental Health?

It can be difficult to talk about your own mental health, especially at work. You might worry that you'll be seen as weak or unable to handle your job. But it's important to remember that mental health is just like physical health: everyone has it, and everyone needs to take care of it. Here are a few tips for talking to a colleague about mental health:

  • Choose the right person. You want to pick someone who you feel comfortable speaking with and who you think will be supportive. You also want someone who won’t think less of you because of your mental health issues. Talking to the wrong person can make you feel worse, so it’s important to be choosy. If you can't find such a person, consider talking to a family member or a therapist instead.
  • Be clear. It's important, to be honest about what you're struggling with. It is also essential to be clear about what you are comfortable sharing. For example, you may only want to discuss your diagnosis, or you may be willing to talk about your symptoms and treatment.
  • Ask for help. When it comes to mental health, reaching out to a trusted coworker is often the first step in getting the support you need. Be honest about what kind of help you need. Whether it's a shoulder to cry on or assistance and advice, asking for help shows strength, not weakness. A trustworthy colleague will likely be more than happy to lend a hand.

How to Talk to Your Boss about Mental Health

It can be tough to talk to your boss about your mental health issues. You might feel like you seem weak or that you're not performing up to par. But if you're not feeling well, you need to take the time to address those issues. Here are a few tips for how to talk to your boss or a direct manager about your mental health issues:

  • Be open about how you're feeling. Your boss isn't going to be able to help if they don't know what's going on.
  • Explain how it's affecting your work. Whether the issue is work-related or stems from your personal life, it can affect your work performance. Let your boss know if you're having trouble concentrating or meeting deadlines.
  • Make a solution-oriented plan. If you're experiencing anxiety, for example, suggest ways that would help you cope with it, such as taking breaks or working from home on certain days.
  • Ask for available resources. Your employer may be able to provide you with accommodations that can help you cope with your symptoms. There are many Employee Assistance Programs available that offer free counseling and other services. In addition, your employer may provide health insurance that covers therapy appointments, medication, or both.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can My Employer Discuss My Mental Health?

It's a question that's been on a lot of employees' minds. The answer, unfortunately, is not a simple one. Even though some laws protect employees from discrimination based on mental health conditions, there is no legislation that would prevent employers from discussing the mental health of their staff.

For instance, The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides protections for employees with mental health conditions. Under the ADA, employers are prohibited from making job decisions based on an employee's mental health.

Furthermore, employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with mental health conditions. This means that employers must make changes to the workplace or the way a job is performed in order to enable an employee to perform their job duties. For example, an employer might allow an employee to work from home if they are struggling with anxiety. [2]

On the other hand, there is no specific law that addresses whether or not employers can discuss an employee's mental health with others. This means that, in most cases, employers are free to discuss an employee's mental health with co-workers, supervisors, and even customers or clients.

Of course, this doesn't mean that employers should be indiscriminately disclosing sensitive information about their employees' mental health - but it does mean that they can legally do so if they choose to. So if you're concerned about your employer discussing your mental health, you may want to have a conversation with human resources professionals about your expectations for confidentiality.

Should You Discuss Mental Health with Your Boss?

Discussing your mental health with your boss or a line manager can be a tricky situation. On one hand, you may feel like you need to open up in order to get the support you need to manage your condition. On the other hand, you may worry about how your boss will react and whether it will impact your job security. Before having this discussion, it's important to weigh the pros and cons.

Some potential pros include getting accommodations at work, such as a flexible schedule or extra time off. This can help to reduce stress and make it easier to manage your condition. In addition, your boss may be more understanding than you expect. Finally, your employer may provide health insurance that will allow you to get professional medical advice or find that you have a diagnosable mental health condition.

However, there are also some potential cons to consider. Unfortunately, mental health stigma still exists so opening up about your struggles could result in your boss treating you differently, which could impact future opportunities for promotion or pay raises. In addition, your conversation may not stay confidential, and coworkers may treat you differently if they find out about your condition.

The research has shown that in a pool of workers who were diagnosed with mood disorders, men rather than women were more likely to disclose it to their employer. Unfortunately, this could be partly due to the fact that male job applicants with disability were found to be rated more favorably in their potential to get higher job positions than females. [3]

In addition, those who perceived higher emotional support from their colleagues and supervisors, those familiar with ADA, and those who had more severe symptoms were more likely to disclose a mental health problem to their organization. [4]

As you can see, there is a variety of factors that determine whether or not you should discuss your mental health with your boss. It is a personal decision that should be based on the severity of your symptoms, your company's culture, and your relationship with your employer.


1 National Institute of Mental Health.

2 Americans with Disabilities Act Technical Assistance.

3 Bell & Klein, 2001.

4 Brohan et al., 2012.

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