Breaking the Stigma of Mental Health in the Workplace
“I’m the happiest I’ve ever been, yet something still isn’t right. And I can’t figure out what it is.”
Those are the words I said to my coworkers and manager before I left for a one-month leave of absence at HubSpot to focus on my mental health.
In early April, I started a two-week behavioral health partial hospitalization program at McLean Hospital. Since being discharged, I’ve spent a lot of time taking it all in, applying the skills I learned at the program to my day-to-day life and learning how to take care of myself and put my needs first.
Entering a treatment program was the hardest and easiest decision I’ve ever made. I was hurting. I needed more help. Life was hard – and I couldn’t understand why. I had everything I ever wanted: my dream job, living in the city I love, a beautiful apartment, a dog who is basically my child, great friends, and a family who loves me unconditionally. Why weren’t those things enough for me to be happy?
Because that’s not how mental illness works.
While the experience at McLean wasn’t what I hoped for, and it set me back a lot in my recovery, it was a reminder to me that we cannot be silent when it comes to mental health – not ever, and especially not in the workplace.
May is Mental Health Month. By now, you’ve probably heard about all the common statistics:
- Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. (46.6 million) experiences mental illness in a given year.
- Approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S. (11.2 million) experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.
- Approximately 18% of adults in the U.S. experience an anxiety disorder.
- Among the 20.2 million adults in the U.S. who experienced a substance use disorder, 50.5% – 10.2 million adults – had a co-occurring mental illness.
(Source: National Alliance on Mental Illness)
What we don’t typically hear about are statistics regarding mental health in the workplace. Or how millions of people living with mental illness get up every day, go to work, hold a steady job and have a career. And we certainly don’t talk about is how living with mental health problems affects our work.
- 1 in 4 Americans say work is a source of anxiety
- Half of employees with anxiety says it interferes with coworker relationships
- Employees with depression lose an additional 27 work days every year
- 4 out of 5 employees say their work-life balance is poor
(Source: Bustle article & various studies)
But what we also know, according to the Center for Workplace Mental Health, is that 80% of employees who sought out treatment reported improvements in their job satisfaction and productivity.
Although not every person has a mental illness, we all have mental health. And there’s still a huge stigma around mental health, especially in the workplace.
We’re scared to talk about it because if we do, our coworkers and managers might look at and think of us differently. We’re worried that our managers might think we can’t do our jobs anymore. We’re afraid to admit that things aren’t okay and that we need time off to work through it. We’re scared of losing our jobs. And therefore, the stigma grows, and people stay silent.
So, what can we do to combat the stigma of mental health in the workplace? Here are just a few ideas.
Assume the best intentions
Here’s a scenario: Your coworker – we’ll call them Taylor – is usually super on-top of everything. They’re always in the office early, great with customers, passionate about the work they do, responds to emails in less than 24 hours, and is generally happy and upbeat.
One day, they start to struggle a bit. Customer calls aren’t going as smoothly as they used to, tasks are slipping through the cracks, and they’re coming in late or missing more days than normal. The work is still getting done, but it’s different. They’re different.
What would you assume?
Many managers and even coworkers would assume Taylor is slacking off or that they’re being lazy. They must not care enough about their job to get to work on time, look put-together or get things done.
But what if it wasn’t like that at all? What if, instead, they were struggling with their mental health, and just getting out of bed every day was a struggle? And working…most days it felt impossible, but they were doing the best they could with what they had.
At this point, you’d feel pretty bad about jumping to conclusions – right?
Assume the best intentions when it comes to your employees and coworkers. Don’t make assumptions based on what you see. The reality is that you have no idea what someone is going through. Even if they look fine, they might be fighting like hell just to keep it together.
If something seems off, ask. Not every employee or coworker will be quick to open up, but you never know what they someone might share when they’re going through a hard time.
Don’t be afraid of saying the wrong thing
The thought of talking about mental health is terrifying because we’re scared we might say the wrong thing. Hell, I consider myself a mental health advocate, and I’m always worried that I might offend someone with my choice of words.
From experience, though, saying something is better than saying nothing – even if it’s not quite the correct terminology.
Long-term, you can work on educating yourself about phrases to avoid or phrases that contribute to the stigma of mental illness. But also recognize that each person feels differently about things.
For example, I often say that I struggle with mental illness, while other people I know avoid that phrase altogether and prefer you say that they live with a mental illness. Additionally, I don’t like when people say to me, “you’re bipolar” or “you’re so OCD.” I much prefer that someone refers to me as someone living with bipolar disorder and OCD.
If you’re unsure what to say or not to say to someone, just ask. Most people will be open and honest about this topic – especially because it benefits them and their health.
Ask how you can help – and be specific
It’s one thing to say, “What can I do to help?” It’s another to ask, “Can I help you find a therapist?” or “Do you want me to come over one night and we can talk and eat ice cream?” or “Can I help you talk to our manager about <insert topic here>?”
Same idea, but the last three questions are more specific.
Often, people dealing with mental health problems don’t know what they need. Or maybe they do and they’re afraid to ask. By asking specific questions, you’re opening up the dialogue and showing them you care. You’re giving them permission to ask for what they need while also being realistic about how you can help.
No one expects you to take away their pain. But by asking how you can help and being there in ways that matter, you’ll make a huge impact.
Create a check-in system
Life happens, we all get busy and we forget to check-in with the people we care about most. It’s even harder at work when you have a million things on your to-do list or you’re in back-to-back meetings all day.
Create a check-in system with a coworker (or coworkers) where you sit down once a week and see how things are going. Make this an open conversation, where each of you shares how you’re feeling, what’s been going on and how you can support each other.
If once a week doesn’t feel like enough, you can also create a channel in Slack (or a group text) where you check-in every day and use the weekly meetings to talk more in-depth.
This doesn’t need to be formal but creating some sort of check-in “system” will ensure you’re reaching out to coworkers all the time – not just when things are hard. It makes people feel more supported, loved and cared about. And it’ll remind your coworkers that they have someone in their corner and someone they can confide in when things are tough.
Talk about it
I’m a firm believer that shame and stigma grow in silence. And because of that, I refuse to be silent – not at home, not online and definitely not at work. I encourage everyone, regardless of whether you have a mental illness, to do the same because we all have mental health. And it’s just as important as our physical health.
For me, I speak out because I know it matters. I know that talking about mental health and mental illness is the only way to break the stigma and to normalize it. If speaking up about my mental health problems can help one person feel like it’s okay to do the same or helps one person feel less alone, then it’s worth it.
So, watch me heal myself by helping others and watch me speak out in a place most people are silent: at work.