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  • Robin Rosenberg

Workplace Mental Health

Dear Robin,


I work in a corporate sales job that leads to a lot of stress and anxiety. I’ve always struggled with anxiety issues, but I’ve been able to manage them in my career. My boss has always said this job required “mentally tough” people. It’s one of his favorite lines and I don’t think he has a clue that I struggle with anxiety. I haven’t brought it up to him over the years because I feared the stigma associated with mental health issues—people at my company are old-fashioned about how they see these issues.


Whenever I was going through a rough patch, I’d simply call out sick or make an excuse to take some time off, sometimes even unpaid. I’ve managed through the years. But now I’m watching an increasing number of new employees come in. I know some of them are struggling with their mental health, especially now with Covid seemingly re-entering our lives in a big way.


I was wondering if you had any tips on how to encourage mental health awareness or de-stigmatize it in the workplace? It was one thing 15 years ago when I thought I just needed to “toughen up” but as I see others struggle, I feel the responsibility to at least try to make my boss and the company aware of employee mental health and its importance.


Thanks so much.



Answer:


Discussing anxiety, depression, or other psychological problems in the workplace has historically been complex and, unfortunately, for many people continues to be so. There are several aspects to address, as noted below.

Stigma

You are not alone. Before the pandemic, about 50% of people were estimated to have a diagnosable mental illness in their lifetimes. Since the pandemic, that number is higher. Just as most people know at least one person who has been affected by COVID, most people know at least one person who has been affected by mental health issues, if not themselves. That personal aspect—knowing people or being such a person—can have a big impact on decreasing stigma. Even though people you’ve worked with in the past may seem “old fashioned” about these issues, be open to the possibility that their thinking has changed.


McKinsey reports that most employers are serious about addressing employees’ mental health, and notes that there are three types of stigmas that can be about mental illness:

· Self-stigma—internalizing and accepting negative stereotypes.

· Public stigma—society’s negative attitudes toward people with mental illness.

· Structural stigma—system-level discrimination toward people with mental illness.

Any or all of these may be occurring for you or your colleagues. That said, it can be helpful to try to sort out the extent to which the perceived stigma about mental illness currently has a self-stigma component. Moreover, for your particular workplace, it may be useful to talk with trusted colleagues about additional ways to address stigma.


Sharing: Issues of Trust

Issues of stigma lead to issues of trust—with whom at work is it “safe” to talk about mental health challenges? Is there a trusted colleague who can help you sort out how much of the perceived stigma is self-stigma, and how much is “out there” among colleagues, managers, supervisors, and leaders, and the structure of the organization?.


Not sharing with colleagues, as you know, in some sense makes things harder. You then have a secret that is profoundly affecting you but don’t feel you can share. You have to put on a happy face and “push through,” which can create its own mental tax, sapping energy. Consider who among your colleagues and managers has earned enough trust to begin a conversation. If need be, you can frame it as you are being an ally to other colleagues who are having a hard time (without naming their names). See how the conversations go and whether those people have earned additional trust.


The Pandemic Has Created a Mental Health Crisis

COVID has put mental health issues on the corporate map in a new way, with new levels of understanding and urgency. Particularly as employees quit and job openings are left unfilled, many employers are striving to acknowledge and address mental health issues.


Not addressing mental health issues is bad for business. Our current pandemic window is the best time for employers to act and employees to push for action, including more mental health benefits for employees, and fighting stigma by having employees change the conversation—by talking about mental health. In addition, having leaders talk about their own challenges opens the door for others to do so, and puts a “face” on mental health problems, and makes it personal.


That said, any course of action depends on the level of trust that your co-workers have earned. Perhaps, if appropriate, you can start small and mention the larger issues (“I was reading this article….”) and see how people respond.


Additional ideas include:

· Does your employer have an EAP that you and your colleagues can use?

· Is there an opportunity to bring ideas to upper management/HR about how the company can better support mental health such as a more flexible schedule, employer-provided “group” activities such as yoga or meditation?


Good luck.


Disclaimer: This question and response is provided for informational purposes only, and you should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of this content. It is strongly recommended that you immediately seek legal or other professional advice if you believe you are experiencing a problem requiring professional assistance. Robin Rosenberg and Live in Their World, Inc. disclaim all liability for actions you take or fail to take based on Dear Robin content.


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