Work is a central part of our lives. We spend almost 100,000 hours on average over a lifetime on the job, giving work a significant influence over our mental health in both positive and negative ways. For example, professional accomplishments can be a source of joy and satisfaction. Work friendships provide meaningful social connection with others. At the same time, however, the workplace can also be a driver of stress, interpersonal conflict, performance anxiety and burn-out. Our increasingly varied work environments, whether in-person, virtual, or a mix of the two, also present new opportunities and challenges. This is why it is important to explore how to talk about mental health at work.
Work is central to our mental health
Try as we may, professional life cannot be neatly isolated from our mental health and well-being, and vice-versa. Whether you’re weighing a potential job offer, managing your mental health challenges, or simply interested in employing a preventive approach to personal wellness, understanding your employer’s mental health resources and policies is critical. It is equally important to learn how to communicate your specific needs and questions to your employer.
Recent trends in mental health and work
Mental health awareness in corporate life has tended to lag other developments. Unfortunately, stigma persists in being open about it. However, recent trends and the mass stressors and related lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic are forcing a shift in employer and employees’ approach to healthier workplaces. Employers in particular are realizing that support to mental health is not only an ethical imperative, but also boosts staff satisfaction and performance.
According to a recent study, 78% of employers surveyed currently offer or plan to offer mental health resources in the next year. This is an increase from previous years, including a relatively large jump as the result of the pandemic. The same study also reflected changing attitudes among human resource departments within companies. Nearly 100% of whom surveyed said agreed that offering mental health resources improves the overall health of employees.
This progress in changing attitudes and concrete support measures still leaves millions of workers without access to mental health services. Even if your employer offers mental health resources, you might not fully understand what is being offered to you. If you do, you may feel uncomfortable asking questions or communicating your needs.
Fears and challenges
There are some common fears to mainstreaming mental health awareness in the workplace. Disclosing one’s interest in or need for mental health resources can still feel highly uncomfortable for many employees. Some of this is due to lingering social stigma around mental health in society. Additionally, this discomfort is driven by historical discriminatory practices in professional settings.
For instance, it is generally acceptable to leave the office for essential health appointments like an annual physical or vaccination. However, it can still be difficult to ask for a simple scheduling accommodation for counseling. In addition, some workers fear that disclosing mental health needs could lead to negative perceptions about their work performance and job security.
How to talk about mental health at work
It is important to acknowledge that you are not alone among your colleagues in prioritizing mental health and seeking resources. A national 2021 survey on mental health at work found that 76% of respondents reported at least one symptom of a mental health condition in the past year, up from 59% in 2019. Not only does this finding underline the increasing need for workplaces that are better sensitized to mental health issues, but it also reveals that many of our co-workers and managers are affected on a regular basis.
An important first step is to fully research and understand your company’s benefits and policies.
Most people in the United States have employer-provided insurance for their health care, which provides a critical link to accessing mental health resources. Although understanding insurance coverage can be daunting, you owe yourself a thorough review of your mental health benefits. Human resources focal points and insurance plan representatives are good sources of information for specific questions about coverage.
Employee assistance programs (EAP)
EAPs are a relatively recent innovation in employee benefits, provided by a company to help employees prevent and resolve issues that could impact their life and work performance. Depending on the employer, an EAP can include services on an in-house or contracted basis. This can look like short-term counseling, support groups, smoking cessation and weight loss programs, fitness programs and financial counseling, among others.
Sick leave and/or paid time-off
According to a poll of American workers earlier this year, 19% of respondents said that their employers had recently expanded additional time off for a “mental health day”. Stigma around identifying mental health as a reason for time off and the stinginess of paid leave policies among some companies are ongoing barriers.
Knowing your rights
In the United States, businesses with 15 or more employees are legally required to provide reasonable accommodation where needed. How this is applied will vary by region, so you should check your local laws to ensure your rights and entitlements are being reasonably met.
Advocate for yourself with office “champions” of mental health
Employees are increasingly talking about mental health at work, which is an important step in the right direction and helps to reduce stigma and shame. This also affects people’s willingness to seek and take advantage of resources. However, recent survey data showed that only 49% of respondents described their experience talking about mental health at work as positive.
Before opening up about your mental health status and needs at work, a good exercise would be to identify who are the potential “champions” of mental health within your office. These are colleagues who would be willing to lend practical and moral support to your situation. Some examples are a co-worker, your boss, a mentor in another department or your human resources contact. Consider the culture of your company. Has the company normalized mental health in its ethos, policies and benefits? Is there a specific person who has made it clear that mental health is a priority for them? It is important that whomever you decide to talk to is someone with whom you feel safe and comfortable sharing personal information.
Be mindful of your sense of comfort
Another important part of this discussion is determining how comfortable you feel sharing in order to achieve your goal. Although you may want to share your mental health diagnosis and/or detailed treatment needs, you might also decide to disclose more limited information to get connected with the needed resources. For example, you may find that a concise request for a day off from work because of heightened stress is a sufficient amount of mental health-related information for your manager.
Advocate for others
Finally, consider bringing your own ideas to the discussion of how your employer could better address its workers’ mental health. For many companies, getting an idea or suggestion about what specific change or resource would be beneficial is often a good starting point for finding a solution. Another option could be to start an employee resource group (ERG) that focuses on workplace mental health and well-being issues.
As many of us return to more regular work patterns or adjust to new working methods, employees need to feel better supported by companies and their managers in discussing mental health challenges and accessing effective, employer-based resources. Speaking out about one’s own mental health challenges can inspire and encourage others in the workplace, creating a virtuous circle.
Is the relationship between your job and mental health putting you under strain? Reach out to myTherapyNYC to find a therapist that can help you strengthen your mental health and wellbeing at work.
Can you recall an experience when you advocated for your mental health in the workplace? Join the conversation in the comments below!