May is Mental Health Awareness Month: a time to raise awareness, reduce stigma, and encourage conversation about mental health. Mental health can be a tricky topic to talk about — in the workplace, it’s even more complex given the unique nature of a professional setting. However, investing in mental health awareness in the workplace is a worthwhile endeavor because when done correctly, it can result in reduced stigma, better mental health for employees, and an improved working environment for all.
Reducing stigma through education
Because mental health can be an uncomfortable topic for some, people tend to avoid discussing or thinking much about it. Some people feel ashamed about their mental health struggles. This can result in stigma: Widespread misconceptions about mental health that often shape people’s attitudes and behaviors toward those with mental health struggles. Some examples are the belief that seeking help for mental health makes someone weak, or that mental health conditions are the sufferer’s own fault.
“This can result in stigma: Widespread misconceptions about mental health that often shape people’s attitudes and behaviors toward those with mental health struggles.”
Mental health stigma is widespread, and keeps people from recognizing, acknowledging, or seeking help for mental health struggles. One way to combat stigma is with education. Giving people accurate information about mental health helps correct misconceptions and reinforce that there’s nothing “wrong” with having a mental health condition or seeking care. Increased education about mental health also helps people understand what kind of treatments are (and are not) effective, and what resources are available to them. In addition, the antidote to shame about mental health struggles is to acknowledge and talk about it in safe spaces. Educational materials or seminars can be one space where mental health is discussed openly in a de-stigmatizing manner.
“The antidote to shame about mental health struggles is to acknowledge and talk about it in safe spaces.”
Partnering with mental health companies which provide educational resources can be beneficial for companies and their people. For example, Big Health has multiple clinical experts on staff who work to provide accurate and actionable mental health education to our clients, who can in turn distribute to their employees. Below is an example of educational material we have created for our clients on general mental health literacy.
Creating a safe and inclusive work environment
While stigma is still a barrier to care, it’s less pervasive than it has been in the past. Beyond educating employees about mental health, it’s important to provide information on how to talk about this topic in the workplace. Big Health CEO Peter Hames recently wrote about the risk involved when mental health becomes a “water cooler conversation.”
“Conversations lacking experience or sensitivity can create a work environment that feels unsafe.”
While it’s true that increased openness about mental health can help some people feel less isolated, judged or ashamed, that openness comes with risks. Conversations lacking experience or sensitivity can create a work environment that feels unsafe. For example, providing education on the prevalence of depression can serve to “normalize” the condition and make someone struggling with it feel less alone or ashamed. However, inaccurate yet well-meaning depictions of the condition — such as the idea that simply thinking more positively cures depression — could run the risk of making people feel misunderstood and unsafe in the workplace.
Providing training on how to have safe and appropriate conversations can help employees feel supported but also protected, and create a better working environment for everyone. One good resource is the Mental Health First Aid at Work site; a program that provides training on recognizing and addressing mental health concerns in the workplace. A few additional guidelines on how to talk about mental health in the workplace:
- Use “person-first language.” A person is more than their mental health diagnosis. Try saying, “a person with schizophrenia” rather than “a schizophrenic” (though some communities prefer “identity-first language,” for example many individuals with Autism prefer the term “Autistic”).
- Respect that mental health is private and that not everybody is comfortable discussing their mental health symptoms or diagnosis — especially at work.
- Understand that everybody experiences mental health symptoms differently. Two people with the same diagnosis will likely have two very different experiences.
- Disclose mental health concerns thoughtfully. Sharing personal mental health experiences can elicit vulnerability. Consider whether the environment is safe and appropriate for disclosure. Consider whether you and the listener(s) are prepared for the conversation.
- If somebody discloses their mental health concerns to you, respond in an understanding, supportive, and empathic manner. Validate their feelings. Try saying something like, “I hear you, it sounds like you are having a hard time,” rather than avoiding the topic or trying to “fix their problems.”
Increasing engagement with stigma-free communication
The challenge for companies is finding the balance between reducing the “taboo” of talking about mental health struggles while still positioning it as a private and sensitive subject. One place for leadership and benefits teams to begin is to use stigma-free language in all mental health communications — both educational and benefits specific.
“Using relatable language that does not refer to “disorders” or “conditions” can engage more employees and help connect them with the mental health resources that they need.”
For example, an email subject line asking “Have you been feeling tense or overwhelmed?” can make people feel more comfortable and engaged than one stating “Important: Information about anxiety disorder benefits.” Using relatable language that does not refer to “disorders” or “conditions” can engage more employees and help connect them with the mental health resources that they need.
Beyond stigma-free language it’s helpful to understand the needs of a specific population and create communications accordingly. Doing so will increase engagement with mental health benefits. For example, we created a communication campaign around sleep and safety for a few of our clients in the manufacturing industry. Similar steps can be taken to better engage your employees from traditionally marginalized groups, like people of color.
Strengthen your workplace with better mental health awareness
In the workplace, investing in mental health awareness has two key benefits: When done sensitively, awareness initiatives spread key knowledge that helps people understand what mental health conditions are and what kinds of evidence-based treatments are available. Employer-led education also helps employees understand how to handle and discuss mental health at work in a safe, appropriate, and sensitive way.
The truth is, no two companies face the exact same challenges when it comes to mental health in the workplace. To ease the burden of understanding how your company is currently doing in supporting mental health and where room for improvement exists, we created the Mental Health Maturity Index. The index provides multiple areas of insights, including how your company is doing when it comes to education and awareness.
Find out how mature your mental health strategy is today.
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