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How to talk about mental health issues at work

Want to destigmatize mental health issues at work? Here's what leaders and employees can do to help.
Image: People work at laptops during a meeting
If you’re unsure of how to tackle a mental health issue at work (as an employer or employee), turn to your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for guidance.Rafal Rodzoch / Getty Images/Caiaimage

In one of the last office jobs I held, I was chummy with my colleagues and spent time with them outside the office. But I never told them that the reason I had to leave at 5pm sharp every other Tuesday was for therapy for depression. I was secretive because I was worried that I would be viewed as "troubled" or defective by my co-workers and afraid that our boss, infamous for his petulant labeling of people, would dub me “the crazy one.” I often missed the appointment because work ran late and I didn’t speak up.

Looking back, I don’t regret keeping private about my mental health issues in that job, but I wish I hadn’t felt obligated to be silent from fear of being seen as weak or unstable. But now it seems some companies are taking notice and are actively putting into place programs that help their employees focus on good mental health as well as physical.

Lyft listened to employees and now provides therapy free to employees and their families

Perhaps the best way to destigmatize mental health in the workplace, is to ask employees what they need to be supported, and then help meet those needs.

Take Lyft for example. Emily Nishi, the chief people officer at Lyft, says the company recently added free behavioral therapy for all full-time employees and their family members after recognizing that the need for mental health support was “a pervasive issue across the entire workforce.”

“Education is a key part of this effort,” says Nishi. “Working with experts at Lyra, we developed a manager guide to provide leadership with detailed information and resources to help them better recognize signs and symptoms of mental health issues and how to properly escalate more serious concerns.”

One in five adults experience mental illness in any given year.

Companies are waking up, but we forget that mental health is ‘the center of well-being’

Most employers tend to stress that they want to help their employees to be healthy. They may provide flu shots during flu season, or let us go home and rest if we have a bellyache. But what about if we’re having an anxiety flare-up or a wave of depression? I’m sure there are bosses out there who are empathetic, but generally this mental health territory is a lot more nebulous, and though it may be taken more seriously by companies it’s rarely treated with the same urgent reverence as say, a chest cold.

And it needs to be.

“What people may sometimes forget to prioritize when it comes to discussing mental health in the workplace is that at the center of it all is the well-being of a company’s biggest asset — its people — and nothing is more important,” says Seth Burr, co-founder and COO of LABUR, a recruiting firm in Boston, adding that he’s seeing more companies grasp this. “When [mental health] becomes the focus, I think organizations will be surprised by their return on investment. Prioritizing mental health means happier, healthier and more productive and creative people. To me, it’s a win-win.”

The first step is to recognize that mental illness is happening

But how might upper management tackle this topic of mental health to begin with? First it must recognize that mental illness is a part of “normal” life, paradoxical as that may sound. One in five adults experience mental illness in any given year.

"It's unreasonable to think life is just about business,” says Duane Hixon, CEO of N2 Publishing. “Everybody struggles, and challenges like mental health issues eventually spill over into the workplace. So, as a leader, you can't pretend it isn't happening. Instead of looking the other way, create an environment where team members feel welcome and encouraged to talk about their struggles. Find out if any team member is willing to talk openly about their past mental health issues and would serve as a support system for those who are facing challenges today. No one should feel like they're alone in their struggle — especially not in a place they spend 40 hours a week."

If you’re a leader who’s had mental health troubles, open up about them

I’m now comfortable enough with my mental illnesses to share openly, but I wasn’t so willing back when I was actually in an office. This is likely the case for a lot of employees, which is why executives may want to kick off the sharing.

“Great bosses that really want to start the discussion and reduce the stigma [may] set the culture by sharing their stories of struggles,” says Josh Goldberg, executive director of Boulder Crest, a mental health center for veterans and the co-author of “Struggle Well: Thriving in the Aftermath of Trauma”. “Normalize struggle by recognizing it is a human condition we all face.”

Dedicate time to talk about something other than work

Spending one-on-one time with employees to talk about regular life stuff (and not work) can be challenging, but it’s a worthwhile move.

“Spend time with your people. If you have an office job, you probably spend a lot of time in meetings. Almost all of those meetings are about work [i.e.] ‘what’s the status of this, what’s the plan for that,’” says Nicole Thurman, VP of talent management, CHG Healthcare. “We encourage our leaders to also have regular one-on-one meetings about anything the employee wants to talk about. That could mean talking about their family, what’s stressing them out at work or at home or any conflicts they’re dealing with. If employees and their leaders spend time with each other on a personal level, it’s much easier for them to talk about stressors or mental health concerns.”

Lean on your Employee Assistance Program

If you’re unsure of how to tackle mental health (as an employer or employee), turn to your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for guidance.

“Utilizing existing EAP resources to talk about things like anxiety, seasonal depression and daily stressors can help begin to normalize these conditions as something that many individuals experience,” says Dr. Rachel O'Neill, an Ohio-licensed professional clinical counselor and Talkspace primary therapist. “It can be especially helpful to talk about effective ways to deal with stress — things like mindfulness and meditation practices — both of which have been shown to increase workplace productivity. In general, the more a workplace encourages conversation around mental health and wellness, the more likely employees are to recognize the importance of self-care."

Denise M. Rousseau, a professor of organizational behavior and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy and the Tepper School of Business, and the faculty director of the Institute for Social Enterprise and Innovation and chair of Health Care Policy and Management program notes that your EAP can also help with training HR and leadership in providing resources.

“Many times an employee comes in with an issue and doesn't yet have a course of action. They're not yet at the point of saying ‘I have a therapist appointment at [X] time. What if they don't have a solution? That's where [the company] needs the skills to be receptive and also prepared to provide resources.”

Three things you as an employee can do

Ideally your employer is recognizing that “mental health and physical health are closely connected” as Rousseau puts it. But you as an employee can do a number of things to advocate for yourself:

  1. Don’t assume your boss will judge or deny you. We shouldn’t be so quick to assume the worse.“Do not preempt,” says Rousseau. “This is especially a problem for women — that old notion they don't like to ask. It’s important to speak up and not assume you’re manager will say no. If they do, go up a level.”
  2. Be upfront and proactive. “I would recommend addressing potential conflicts and problems head on, not waiting until things have gotten ‘really bad’ to finally say or do something,” Dr. Farrah Hauke, a psychologist. “Be direct about what you need with your employer, [but] share only what you feel comfortable with sharing.
  3. Commit to ending the stigma in your own thoughts. Hauke notes that it’s critical that we ourselves think of mental health as any other condition for which you might need time off or accommodation, adding” “The ‘stigma’ starts with you.”


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