How To Talk About Mental Health At Work

If one positive has emerged from the sheer chaos of the past 18 months, it’s that a spotlight is finally shining hard on mental health. 

Why? Because it’s no longer a periphery problem.

More people are suffering from poor mental health, and more people are talking about it; which means that sweeping it under the carpet just isn’t an option anymore – and nor is shying away from it at work. The pandemic caused mental illness to soar, which led to workers needing time off (or leaving jobs altogether). 

And when problems impact the workplace in unignorable numbers, we see a tangible hope for change.

Why talking about workplace mental health matters

Imagine getting the flu. Actual body-shakes flu. You’re barely up to getting out of bed, but you feel the need to drag yourself into work because no one there ever talks about being ill. Your manager has never spoken about being ill. Your colleagues have never discussed feeling ill. You start to think that if you’re the only one getting ill, you must be the weak link; so you push on through, feeling worse than ever until eventually, you figure that maybe this isn’t the right place for you. 

Crazy, right? But that’s exactly how it feels for someone struggling with their mental health in a company that does nothing to destigmatise it.

Stats from The Mental Health Foundation suggest a staggering 70 million working days are lost to mental illness each year, costing the UK £70-100bn annually. Presenteeism can actually double the cost, which means that nurturing an environment that effectively prohibits people from taking time off when they need it is incredibly bad for business.

Talking about mental health in a way that lets people know it’s not taboo, means a business is less likely to lose time and talent, and its employees are less likely to suffer and leave.

How to create an open culture around mental health

Before people can be expected to open up about their mental health at work, the conditions have to be right. That means employers must create and nurture a culture that fully supports and promotes employee wellbeing, whilst openly acknowledging the pressures that can impact mental health.

The most successful wellbeing cultures are those that cultivate open and honest communication: senior leaders speaking out about their own mental health; colleagues sharing lived experience because an example has been set; line managers looking for signs of burnout, stress or struggle, and encouraging time out when it’s needed; companies making a visible commitment by investing in wellbeing resources – and communicating them, endlessly. 

And if you’re a people manager reading this? Start by asking people how they are, then ask again. Ask how they really are, both in and out of work. And really listen to those answers.

How to talk to your boss about mental health

If you’re struggling with your mental health, you’re going to need some understanding from your boss. We know how daunting it can be to have that first conversation, so we’d recommend writing a few notes about what you want to say. Try to write down what you’re feeling, how it’s impacting your working life, and what you’re looking for from your employer.

That last one is really important: your employer has a duty of care towards you, but it’ll really help you if your ideal outcome is clear in your mind. Do you need time off work? Some flexibility around hours? Regular check-ins and support with workload? Or do you need to know what support services are available to you? 

If you have a diagnosed mental health condition, it can be handy to ask your doctor for information you can pass on to your employer that will help them to understand the implications of your illness. And don’t worry if you get upset; it’s totally normal, and you’re only human.

How to talk to your colleagues about mental health

Peer support is incredibly important (and effective) in the workplace. If you can talk openly to your colleagues about how you’re feeling, and encourage them to do the same, it changes the narrative around mental health dramatically. 

When the topic isn’t confined to the shadows, mental illness quickly loses stigma, and an element of power. So, if you’re feeling comfortable – and brave – start those conversations with your colleagues. Be open when you’re feeling stressed; speak out when your workload is causing you overwhelm; admit when anxiety is draining your reserves, and unashamedly share when depression is making it difficult to navigate the day.

You’re never under any pressure or obligation to discuss your mental health, so only speak out if it feels right for you. If you’re not comfortable with sharing, it’s just as beneficial to look out for signs that your colleagues might be struggling, and to offer them a non-judgmental ear.

Getting support with employee mental health

Mental health can be a difficult field to navigate, but we believe that every person has the right to work in a mentally healthy and supportive environment. We also believe that giving people power over their own wellbeing journey is the most effective way to make that happen.

If you think so too, or you’d like to learn how we came to that bold conclusion, get in touch to find out more. You can also book a free demo of our employee-led wellbeing platform to see what we’re all about (it’s pretty cool, and most definitely worth a look).

Workplace wellbeing insights