By Melissa Doman, M.A. Organisational Psychologist, Former Clinical Mental Health Therapist, & Author
Every person, no matter the company and industry, should feel psychologically safe to have discussions about mental health, stress, and mental illness at work. Full stop.
“But Melissa, every company and industry is so different. In some industries and organizations it feels unrealistic and impossible. What do we do?”
I’m glad you asked.
I’m very conscious of the fact that each person who reads this article has or will encounter their own challenges in their company and particular industry. Specificities aside, incremental change and defining what ‘good looks like’ is needed across the board. Why? Because every person in every business should feel psychologically safe to discuss mental health at work.
So, how do we bridge the gap of differences and find what all businesses have in common?
It’s simple this: they’re all staffed by humans that all have mental health, and many who may also have mental illness. Based on this, let’s look at standard practices that any organisation can implement to reach the ‘gold standard’.
The ‘gold standard’
‘Getting the gold’ doesn’t happen overnight. It comes from practice and patience.
To get you started, here are a few ideas on what ‘getting it right’ looks like as you make it to the bronze and silver milestones first:
- Emotionally intelligent and open about their struggles to staff and other leaders.
- Feel encouraged by the company to prioritise their mental health so they can show up for their teams.
- Understand that being a leader doesn’t mean that they are expected to be faultless.
The entire staff:
- Can come to work as they are.
- Don’t feel a need to hide their mental health experiences (for fear of judgment).
- Empowered to speak up about mental health, to take mental health days as needed, and use company resources just as they would for physical health.
- Show basic empathy and care to one another.
An important caveat: this is specifically within the remit of work.
You’re not training to become therapists, doctors, psychiatrists, or any other type of medical professional. You’re equipping yourselves with the skillset required to understand and talk about experiences that are human and also very prevalent: mental health and mental illness. You can be a supportive human being, but it’s not your job to save, fix, or treat someone.
Fixer types: I’m 100% aware that you mean well, but the best way you can help someone is by taking that cape off and using some basic mental health conversation skills to support them.
Be conscious of perceptions and stereotypes
There are countless factors that influence how we view mental health conversations, both inside and outside of work. Culture, ethnicity, religion, family upbringing, gender, and more.
Unfortunately, no matter your background, there are accompanying stereotypes connected to displaying emotions, especially at work.
I’m shaking my head too. It’s being worked on – give it another 5-10+ years.
Countless people have reported hesitance to talk about their mental health at work. A major reason? Potentially sacrificing their professional reputation. That’s far too big of a cost.
So, let’s set the record straight: being empathetic, articulating your feelings, and prioritising mental health are strengths. Those are some of the most highly sought after ‘traits’ employers look for, especially in people leaders (I see you Jacinda Ardern).
If someone is slinging skewed perceptions or stereotypes at you after you’ve brought up your mental health at work, pause. Trust me, first use honey, not vinegar. Simply say this: “Talking about and managing my mental health is a healthy adult practice.”
It’s not defensive, rude, or untrue. I know, great right? Please report back on how far that person’s jaw drops to the floor.
Conversations will shift your work culture – please have a lot of them
Now, the aim isn’t for every person to feel obligated to discuss mental health or mental illness at work. That approach is counterproductive and will make people feel uncomfortable.
The goal is for every person to feel they have the option, permission, and safety to discuss it. We can make these changes through the conversations we have at work. Conversations are what matter the most.
The end goal
Conversations that happen so often that they’re embedded in the company culture. A culture that shows and normalises life’s shades of grey. Not rose-coloured lenses, or shattered glass, but rather somewhere in between.
A culture that supports colleagues as they go through these experiences, resulting in a clear understanding that just because someone struggles with mental health doesn’t mean they’re incapable or some other untrue stereotype.
Here are a few tips to get you started, starting with 1:1 conversations:
- Listen (put the tech away)
- Don’t judge
- Reassure that the conversation doesn’t change how you view them
- Ask questions, don’t give advice
- Seek to understand, don’t make assumptions
- Ask the type of support they want (listening or solutioning)
- Respect privacy
- Don’t engage in toxic positivity (a silver lining isn’t always helpful)
- Watch your body language (e.g. no deer-in-headlights look)
- Normalise that they’re not alone
- Be clear on next steps (if needed)
What you can start doing today
Changing a workplace culture and embedded social norms requires patience and endurance. You’ll need to take this one step at a time, because it’s crucial to get it right.
Start small. Have one conversation. Just like any other skillset, this will take time and practice to develop.
No matter where you are in your journey, thank you for deepening your learning so you can make an impact.
Remember – action matters. Why? Simply this: awareness is great – action is better ™.
About the expert
Melissa Doman, MA is an organisational psychologist, a former clinical mental health therapist and a mental health at work specialist. She uses both her clinical and organisational psychology experience to inform her practical and solution-focused approach, working with companies and leaders to equip them to build the skill set, mindset and behaviours required to discuss mental health, mental illness, and stress at work. Melissa has spoken and consulted for international, national, and local organisations including Fortune 500 companies. Yes, You Can Talk About Mental Health at Work by Melissa Doman is out now (Welbeck Balance £12.99)
To find out more, please visit www.melissadoman.com