This year, we are seeing that more and more employees and managers are eager to talk about mental health in the workplace. Over the past few years, many who work in management have encountered an unprecedented number of reports of stress, burnout, and depression from our employees. We are seeing the consequences of under-supported employees as it affects the overall wellness and culture of our teams. A Willis Towers Watson survey report from early 2022 shows that 86 percent of employers are recognizing mental health as a top priority at their companies; however, 49 percent of those employers have not yet strategized how to amplify mental health and wellbeing support for their employees. This article will provide more context around the idea of mental health support at work and will explore some targeted ways to start building better support for your employees.
What Do We Mean When We Talk About Mental Health?
Talking about mental healthcare can be daunting, because we can be referring to several things at once when we say the phrase “mental health.” Like any other aspect of our health, mental health is simply a component of our overall wellness. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as “a state of wellbeing in which the individual realizes [their] own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make contributions to his or her community.”
However, it is possible for us to explore more neutral definitions of mental health as well. For example, we would expect someone who just lost a loved one to respond with grief and sorrow, and they would likely need to take time away from making contributions to the community and working productively. This would be a completely healthy response to a major life event and would not necessarily constitute poor mental health.
To elaborate on this more neutral view of mental health that allows for the full spectrum of emotions to be felt and explored, consider that we have four main aspects of wellbeing that will contribute to the state of our mental health on any given day or at any given hour:
- Emotional wellbeing
- Physical wellbeing
- Financial wellbeing
- Social wellbeing
Together, all four of these types of wellbeing will contribute to the state of one’s mental health. If someone is undergoing undue financial strain due to an emergency, they will likely feel more stress. If someone has just been diagnosed with a major illness, they may feel grief and sadness as they process the news. Alternatively, if someone has just made a new friend who is bringing them a lot of joy, they may feel more carefree and optimistic. And if an individual has adopted a new exercise regimen, they could benefit from increased endorphins that will enhance both their physical and emotional states.
As you can see, there are a lot of factors at any given time that impact our mental health. Trying to explore mental health as either “good mental health” or “poor mental health” can be limiting to our discussions around how best to support our employees’ mental health at work. Instead, practice taking a neutral stance and creating room for the full spectrum of human experience to come through.
World Psychiatry proposes the following updated definition of mental health:
Mental health is a dynamic state of internal equilibrium which enables individuals to use their abilities in harmony with universal values of society. Basic cognitive and social skills; ability to recognize, express and modulate one’s own emotions, as well as empathize with others; flexibility and ability to cope with adverse life events and function in social roles; and harmonious relationship between body and mind represent important components of mental health which contribute, to varying degrees, to the state of internal equilibrium.
Why We Must Talk About Mental Health at Work
Quite frankly, we need more conversation around mental health and mental health support in the workplace because our employees are asking for it, particularly when it comes to the younger generations. Employees are starting to expect employers to know how to talk to employees about mental health, to provide resources for wellness, and to promote strong work-life balance. This includes, but also exceeds, offering comprehensive wellness packages that include more mental health resources.
To start learning how to talk about mental health and wellness at work, consider the following work-related risk factors, and begin to look out for signs of them in your workplace:
- Unsuitable tasks for an individual’s competencies and strengths
- High/unrealistic workload
- Unclear tasks or goals
- Inflexible working hours
- Unsuitable support for employees
- Inadequate safety and health policies
- Poor management styles and inconsistent/insufficient communication
- Lack of autonomy
- Overly competitive culture
- Bullying and/or harassment
- Lack of social support
8 Ways to Provide Mental Health Support at Work
There are several ways that you can go ahead and start providing stronger mental health support to your employees.
- Create language to communicate mental health concerns and needs
It can be truly challenging and uncomfortable to begin to have conversations around mental health, especially when you are the one asking for help. Keep this in mind any time employees come to you with these concerns, and help them build a neutral and empowering vocabulary around the subject. Additionally, if you must be the one to approach an employee about concerns you have about their mental health, do so with compassion. Instead of accusing them of slipping up or not caring, try and say something like, “I’ve noticed some inconsistency in your work, which is unlike you. Is everything okay? How can I support you?” Try and focus on how you can make their experience in their role more comfortable and motivating.
- Encourage mental health days
When employees feel like their mental health is valued highly by their employers, they feel valued and supported as a whole person. Workers who feel their mental health is supported at work are 26 percent less likely to report symptoms of a mental health condition. Furthermore, these individuals tend to report higher job satisfaction and an intention to stay at their company long term. One great way to promote this kind of culture is to give employees designated mental health days and encourage their use. This creates a sense of awareness and acceptance around the subject of mental health in general.
- Reduce stigma
When employees request time off short-notice, practice reducing stigma by graciously granting them the time off. Unless you suspect there may be some kind of emergency, don’t ask personal questions that could come off as invasive. And when employees plan ahead for a mental health day, try to respond to their request quickly so that they can see that you are supporting them making use of that time. If you’re not able to approve a request for a specific time or day, offer alternatives to the employee so that they know you still want them to use that time off.
- Practice empathy
Empathy is the process in which you imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes and try to imagine the feelings you might have if you were in their place. Empathy involves using active listening and curiosity in conversations with your employees. When an employee comes to you to talk about mental health, use compassion and make sure you are listening to understand them. Reflect any feeling words they use back to them so they can see that you care how they feel. This will help you better support them as you look forward together to find solutions.
- Provide resources
Many companies are still figuring out what kinds of mental health benefits and online support channels they’d like to offer their employees as part of their benefits packages. If you’re one of these, that’s okay! Start by encouraging management in your company to offer professional development time to go toward workshops, webinars, etc. that focus on wellness and resilience.
- Assess your benefits packages
When it comes time to evaluate changes to your benefits packages, make sure to work with upper leadership to find options that prioritize mental wellness. For example, many employers are beginning to offer online third party counseling services that make mental health support more accessible.
- Watch for burnout
Burnout has become an extraordinarily common occurrence for many of us over the past few years as we’ve navigated crises and change. Here are some of the signs of burnout to look out for on your teams:
- Chronic fatigue
- Impaired concentration and poor performance
- Physical aches and pains
- Loss of appetite
- Isolation and detachment
- Feelings of hopelessness and/or apathy
If you start to notice any of these in your employees, use empathy to strike up conversations around what support for those individuals could look like. Empower them by letting them take the reins in the conversation by inviting them to share what they think could help and encouraging them to work with you to set attainable goals.
- Provide a flexible work environment
Allowing employees to adopt a flexible schedule and/or hybrid work schedule can help a lot when it comes to managing a healthy work-life balance. A flexible work environment can also involve letting employees work remotely while visiting family or traveling to a warmer climate in the winter, compressing their workweek every now and then, or supporting working parents who need to attend to their children’s events during the workday. The root of providing flexibility for your employees is considering what their needs are outside of work and how you can create an environment that doesn’t infringe upon their ability to get things done when they’re not clocked in.
Fill Your Own Cup Too
We often put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be supportive of our direct reports and those we care about. This can be really challenging, especially when it comes to mental health. As a society, we don’t yet have a strong and cohesive vocabulary around how to support individuals who may be facing mental health challenges. The good news is that this is rapidly improving, and your organization can be part of the push to contribute to building that empowering and nurturing workplace that will promote mental wellness.
Remember, you’re not in this alone. You have plenty of resources available to you that will help you feel like part of a community of individuals who are fighting for more inclusivity at work. To work well with others, you need to fill your own cup first. A great way to do this is through professional development that will empower you.
KnowledgeCity takes our community-building commitment seriously, and we have several new resources to help. Start with our course, “Maintaining Mental Health Amid Challenges.” This course explores several strong strategies to help you and your teams navigate stress and build positivity. From there, you can take our course, “Having a Healthy Workplace Culture,” which gives more targeted tips around supporting your employee’s mental health, creating action plans, building trust in your community, and building coping skills at work.