Discussing mental health is never easy, be it with family, friends, or your larger community. Discussing mental health at work, however, can often feel even more complicated. As an author, speaker, and advocate living with bipolar disorder, I know firsthand how hard it is to have conversations about mental wellness in the workplace. Due to my symptoms, I often had no choice but to discuss my mental health openly.
Over the years I have found that discussing my mental health not only helps me, but also allows me to bring my full self to the table. While initially scary, this vulnerability has led to extremely rewarding outcomes, ones in which I feel safe to reach out for help, support others, and create a powerful community.
Every office is different, but here are the steps I have used to help create a workplace culture that’s open and supportive of employees’ mental well-being:
Start small: When asking a co-worker, “How was your weekend?” or “How are you?” I practice active listening and mean it. I ask follow-up questions and try to learn more about colleagues’ lives, emotions, and needs. Not only does active listening allow others to feel safe, but it builds trust within our relationships, allowing us to share personal experiences and vulnerabilities. Studies have found that establishing meaningful connections with coworkers can increase our happiness, boost our productivity, and help us find a sense of community at work.
See power in vulnerability: Without even focusing on mental health specifically, vulnerability is shown to create stronger employee relationships, leaders, and work environments. Brené Brown is building an empire on “The power of vulnerability,” while companies are utilizing the power of empathy to drive innovation.
Know the prevalence: Mental health struggles are extremely common. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. (46.6 million) experiences mental illness in a given year. The World Health Organization estimates around 300 million people worldwide are affected by depression, while 275 million are impacted by anxiety. However, mental health is not synonymous with mental illness, meaning general mental health struggles are even more common. Mental strain can be brought on by many different kinds of life events and stressors. For many people, even happy events can create added stress and anxiety. Knowing the prevalence of these issues can help us approach them with more empathy and less judgement.
Open up the conversation. By remembering the facts above (and even if I am shaking on the inside), I share my vulnerability with confidence, because I know we need to have more conversations about mental health at work if we are to bust the stigmas.
Laugh. Don’t be afraid of humor. Sometimes all I can do is laugh because sometimes this stuff is weird and funny. I remind myself it is OK to laugh when things are sad or dark. Many times this creates moments of relief while building stronger relationships of trust and understanding.
Remember we are not alone: The most common reaction I get when speaking about my mental health is a look of relief followed by, “I’ve never told anyone but…” This is not surprising given 1 in 5 statistic above. Everyone is waiting for someone else to speak. Why not be that person?
If you decide to talk to your boss, know the facts. Because workplace cultures — and legal rules — vary, if you are considering talking to your boss about a mental health condition that might prevent you from doing parts of your job or necessitates you taking some time off, do your homework about your company’s guidelines, and come to your boss with solutions. This will ease the process and help you thrive through any rough patches.