Mental Health at Work – Breaking the Silence

by | Oct 5, 2021 | Personal Growth, Professional Growth

“There is no health without mental health; mental health is too important to be left to the professionals alone, and mental health is everyone’s business”.
– Vikram Patel Professor, Harvard Medical School

We care about the people we work with. When our colleagues are physically ill or hurt, we understand their need to recover. However, the mental well-being of our colleagues is often a mystery.

Consider a key employee who is experiencing anxiety on the job. Perhaps they are suffering through how to balance work and home through the pandemic. This worker not only suffers from these internal and external forces, but they also worry about the stigma of acknowledging that. Their choice is often to remain silent.

Mystery and silence.
Don’t ask. Don’t tell.

We need to break the silence as mental health is clearly a higher workforce priority today:

  • One in five adults is currently experiencing a diagnosable mental illness.
    • Challenge – 50% of the one in five adults will not get treated
    • Opportunity – 80% of those treated experience increased productivity and job satisfaction.

The question today has changed from “What you are doing?” to “How you are doing?”

Adam Grant describes the absence of mental health well-being in the workplace as languishing. “Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.”

Organizations have come to realize the impact of mental health on the bottom line:

  • When employees receive effective treatment for mental illnesses, the result is:
    • lower total medical costs
    • increased productivity
    • lower absenteeism
    • decreased disability costs.
  • Employee benefit changes, employee assistance programs, and working virtually are a few examples of responding to mental health needs

If investing in mental health is good for business, why the ongoing mystery and silence?

I recall a leadership meeting where a fellow manager complained about an employee on his team who had been a top performer but now needed time off from work. The manager said, “He is soft, avoids the tough assignments, and I heard he is having problems at home.”

The meeting leader quickly changed the topic. No one called out the inappropriate behavior. I regret as a new manager I was one of the silent leaders – a regret I converted to a lesson learned.

As leaders, we need to advocate for mental well-being, including our own. A great place to start is acknowledging our own fears and anxiety. Once we understand our own situation, we can more effectively lead others toward improved mental well-being.

Three keys to breaking the silence surrounding mental health at work:

Paying attention to people, what brings them stress and joy, is a leadership expectation. We also need to look for mental health clues – absences, acting out of character, etc. If an employee is trained and resourced to do their job, and suddenly their performance is subpar, their mental health may be a cause.

Once you believe there may be a mental health challenge underway, the next step is a conversation. The conversation should be objective, using open-ended questions to determine what is getting in the way of performing their job. Break the silence by hearing their story, not jumping to a diagnosis.

If there are challenges getting in their way, you can identify resources to help them regain their well-being. Restructuring their job. Offering company resources such as HR or an Employee Assistance (EAP) program. Leaders need to care and support, yet the employee needs to take ownership of their work.

The silence surrounding mental health at work can be deafening. Leaders understand silence is not always golden, and they engage with three steps: notice, talk, and act. Mindful leaders recognize that a mind is a terrible thing to waste.

All My Best,