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Mental Health at Work Matters:
How to Build a Supportive Workplace

A person's head silhouette is covered in orange yarn intertwined with puzzle pieces, and beautiful flowers at the bottom.
Hacking HR Team

Posted on April 28, 2024

Your mental health has a tangible impact on your performance at work. You're more productive, engaged, and likely to thrive in your role when you feel mentally strong and supported. Yet, the dangerous stigma around mental health can make it challenging to get the help you need if you're struggling. In the USA alone, one in five adults experiences a mental health condition annually, and these conditions are a leading cause of workplace disability and absenteeism.

Therefore, it isn't just a personal issue. It impacts us all. For instance, that talented colleague whose anxiety keeps them from sharing their ideas or the stressed-out team leader whose burnout affects everyone's morale. Neglecting mental health in the workplace hurts individuals, teams, and the company as a whole.

Let's examine the connection between mental health and workplace success, explore why stigma is so damaging, and offer practical strategies for creating a workplace where everyone's mental well-being is a priority.

Why is Mental Health at Work Important?

Remember when you were at your best at work – focused, energized, and making a real impact? That's the power of good mental health. But for many employees, the reality is much different. Feelings of overwhelm, crippling anxiety, or the crushing weight of burnout hold them back from reaching their full potential. It isn't just a personal struggle – it hurts team morale, productivity, and the company's bottom line.

Why Don't People Talk About Mental Health?

Mental health stigma is a significant barrier preventing employees from seeking help. Fear of discrimination, judgment, or career repercussions often makes people suffer silently.

Here's how stigma shows up in the workplace:

  • Shame and Fear: Employees may feel ashamed or afraid to discuss their mental health challenges.

  • Lack of Understanding: Misconceptions about mental illness perpetuate harmful stereotypes.

  • Career Concerns: Employees might fear that disclosing mental health issues could negatively affect their job security or advancement opportunities.

  • Minimizing the Problem: Leaders might downplay the importance of mental health or not take it seriously.

How Does Mental Health Affect Work Performance?

  • Reduced Focus and Productivity: Picture a talented developer whose racing thoughts make it impossible to concentrate on writing code. Every minor distraction feels insurmountable.

  • Increased Absenteeism and Presenteeism: Imagine a usually punctual employee calling in sick more often or staring blankly at her screen, unable to focus.

  • Strained Relationships: Remember that team meeting where Sarah, usually upbeat, snapped at a colleague over a minor miscommunication. Later, you learn she's been struggling with anxiety.

  • Decreased Engagement and Motivation: Think about a once-enthusiastic team member who's now disengaged. Their work is just getting done – that spark of innovation is missing.

9 Ways to Support Mental Health in the Workplace

Mental health is no longer a taboo topic in the workplace, as everyone recognizes its profound effect on employee engagement, productivity, and overall business success. However, understanding the importance of mental health requires action.

To cultivate workplaces where mental well-being thrives, a proactive approach is required. This means shifting our culture, implementing concrete support systems, and empowering employees to care for their mental health just as they would their physical health. Let's explore nine powerful ways to make this a reality within your organization.

  1. Normalize Open Dialogue: Stigma is one of the most significant barriers preventing employees from seeking help. Create a safe space where employees feel comfortable discussing their mental health without fear of judgment, discrimination, or career repercussions. This starts with open communication from leadership, destigmatizing language, and ongoing awareness campaigns.

  2. Train for Awareness: Equip managers and employees with the knowledge and skills to recognize signs of potential mental health struggles in themselves and others. Provide training on how to offer support, have sensitive conversations, and guide individuals toward appropriate resources.

  3. Flexibility is Key: Offer flexible work arrangements that empower employees to manage their mental well-being better. Flexibility can alleviate stress, reduce burnout, and improve work-life balance, whether remote work options, flexible hours, or compressed workweeks.

  4. Implement an EAP: Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are an invaluable resource, providing confidential counseling, crisis support, and referrals to specialized care. Ensure your EAP is well-promoted, accessible, and inclusive of diverse mental health needs.

  5. Promote Healthy Habits: Mental and physical health are intertwined. Encourage physical activity through lunchtime walking groups, subsidized gym memberships, or on-site fitness classes. Provide healthy food options, promote healthy sleep habits, and offer mindfulness or stress-reduction programs.

  6. Address Workplace Stressors: A healthy workplace starts with a healthy work environment. Proactively address issues like excessive workloads, role ambiguity, lack of control, bullying, or harassment. Prioritize creating a culture of respect, fair expectations, and supportive management.

  7. Foster a Support Network: Meaningful connections are vital to mental well-being. Encourage peer support groups, mentorship programs, or company-sponsored social events that foster a sense of belonging and reduce isolation.

  8. Lead by Example: Leaders who openly prioritize their mental health and model healthy coping mechanisms create a ripple effect. Participate in wellness initiatives, take time off when needed, and speak candidly about the importance of mental wellbeing to destigmatize the topic at all levels.

  9. Offer Mental Health Days: Untreated mental health issues and substance abuse disorders have a staggering economic impact, costing businesses billions due to absenteeism, decreased productivity, and healthcare costs. So, normalize taking time off to address mental health needs just as employees would for physical ailments. This sends a powerful message that mental wellbeing is just as important and deserving of care.

An infographic titled "6 Things You Can Do To Reduce Mental Health Stigma" shows a person sitting on the floor with a dark cloud hovering" surrounded by six text boxes with the texts: 1. Challenge Your Own Biases: Do you view those with mental health struggles differently? Honest self-examination is the first step towards creating change. 2. Educate Yourself: Learn about different mental health conditions. The more you understand, the easier it is to be an advocate and ally. 3. Be Respectful: Avoid labeling or making assumptions based on someone's diagnosis. Be mindful of the words you use. 4. Speak Up: Don't let stigmatizing comments or jokes slide. Respectfully challenge harmful stereotypes and misinformation. Your voice matters! 5. Listen Without Judgment: If someone confides in you about their mental health struggles, offer support and empathy. Listen actively and validate their feelings. 6. Advocate for Change: Push for supportive policies and mental well-being initiatives. Challenge stigma in your social circles.

6 Things You Can Do to Reduce Mental Health Stigma

The stigma surrounding mental health is deeply ingrained, but it doesn't have to define our workplaces. While systemic change is essential, every individual has the power to make a difference. Hence, by shifting your attitudes, words, and actions, you chip away at the harmful stigma that prevents people from seeking help.

Therefore, understanding the prevalence of mental health conditions is the first step towards breaking down stigma. But compassion demands more than just knowledge. Actual change happens when we become active allies for those struggling with mental health. It means speaking up, offering support, and championing a workplace culture where mental well-being is a shared priority. Let’s take a look at six things you can do to reduce such a stigma:

1. Challenge Your Own Biases

We all hold unconscious biases about mental health. Reflect on your beliefs and assumptions. Do you unintentionally use stigmatizing language (e.g., "crazy," "weak")? Do you view those with mental health struggles differently? Honest self-examination is the first step towards creating change. Remember, mental health conditions are incredibly common – one in five adults worldwide experiences one each year.

2. Educate Yourself

Learn about different mental health conditions, their symptoms, and available treatments. Dispel myths and misconceptions that contribute to stigma. The more you understand, the easier it is to be an advocate and ally.

3. Be Respectful

Use inclusive, person-first language (e.g., "person with schizophrenia" rather than "schizophrenic"). Avoid labeling or making assumptions based on someone's diagnosis. Be mindful of the words you use, both in casual conversation and workplace communications. Globally, mental health challenges are widespread - for instance, over 2 in 5 (44% or 8.6 million) Australians aged 16-85 are estimated to have experienced a mental disorder at some time in their life.

4. Speak Up

Don't let stigmatizing comments or jokes slide. Respectfully challenge harmful stereotypes and misinformation. Your voice matters! By speaking up, you normalize conversations about mental health and create a more accepting environment. Mental health struggles are far from rare – in the UK, one in four adults will experience a mental health problem each year.

5. Listen Without Judgment

If someone confides in you about their mental health struggles, offer support and empathy. Focus on listening actively and validating their feelings. Avoid offering unsolicited advice or minimizing their experiences. For instance, in Canada, 11.5 percent of the population has a mood disorder diagnosis such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. Other common mental health issues in Canada include substance use disorders and personality disorders. The Canadian Mental Health Association reports that 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental health problem or illness in any given year

6. Advocate for Change

Advocate for change at all levels! At work, push for supportive policies and mental well-being initiatives that address the full spectrum of mental health needs, including substance abuse support. Challenge stigma in your social circles. Be part of the movement towards a world where mental and physical health are treated equally. It matters: mental health conditions, including substance abuse, are a leading cause of workplace disability and absenteeism. The staggering reality is that in the USA, one in four Americans over the age of 12 admits to using illicit drugs, and 46 million people nationwide struggle with substance abuse.

12 Actions Employers Can Take to Prioritize Mental Health

Beyond the mental health talk and awareness month, it requires a long-term commitment, meaning translating words into concrete support systems. It’s to move the needle from awareness to actual change through proactive policies, inclusive programs, and a culture that values well-being at all levels.

A workplace that prioritizes mental health requires a strategic, multifaceted approach. From clear policies and proactive screenings to fostering a culture of support and accountability, these actions lay the groundwork for a workplace where everyone can thrive.

  1. Create a Mental Health-Inclusive Handbook: Develop a clear, easily accessible section within your employee handbook that outlines mental health policies, resources, and the company's commitment to well-being.

  2. Offer Workplace Mental Health Screenings: Provide confidential, voluntary mental health screenings to identify potential issues early and connect employees with appropriate support.

  3. Partner with a Specialized EAP: Consider an EAP provider specializing in mental health support. This provider offers a broader range of therapists, crisis hotlines, and tailored resources.

  4. Designate Mental Health Champions: Train volunteer employees from various departments to be mental health advocates, helping to destigmatize conversations and offering peer support.

  5. Rethink Performance Management: Include regular check-ins on workload, stress levels, and overall well-being in performance conversations.

  6. Support Managers with Mental Health Training: Equip managers with skills to identify potential red flags, have sensitive conversations, and guide employees towards appropriate resources.

  7. Actively Combat Workplace Stigma: Launch an ongoing awareness campaign with posters, talks, and events tackling mental health stigma head-on.

  8. Zero Tolerance for Mental Health Discrimination: Include specific language in your anti-discrimination policy prohibiting discrimination based on mental health status. Train HR and managers to recognize and address this.

  9. Encourage 'Bring Your Whole Self' Days: Designate days where employees can share their experiences (including mental health) to foster empathy and human connection.

  10. Offer Flexible Leave Options: Allow for short-term mental health leaves, sabbaticals, or the option to compress workweeks, providing flexibility in times of need.

  11. Facilitate Return-to-Work Support: Develop a plan to support employees returning from mental health-related leave, including gradual reintegration and ongoing check-ins.

  12. Track Progress and Gather Feedback: Regularly assess the impact of your initiatives through surveys, focus groups, or other data collection methods.

Your Mental Health Action Plan

Phase 1: Assessment & Foundation

Audit & Needs Analysis:

  • Survey employees to gauge current mental health awareness, experiences, and desired support areas.

  • Review existing policies (attendance, leave, etc.) for potential barriers to mental well-being.

  • Assess current mental health coverage in health insurance plans.

Leadership Alignment:

  • Conduct workshops or presentations specifically for leaders on the business impact of mental health, stigma reduction, and their role as well-being champions.

  • Secure buy-in for budget allocation and policy changes.

Foundational Changes:

  • Draft a mental health statement outlining the company's commitment, which will be included in handbooks and communications.

  • Select an EAP provider or enhance your program, focusing on mental health specialists.

Phase 2: Awareness & Skill-Building

Multi-Tiered Training:

  • Mandatory mental health awareness training for ALL employees, focusing on stigma reduction, recognizing signs, and offering support.

  • Specialized training for managers on having sensitive conversations, directing employees to resources, and creating psychologically safe teams.

Awareness Campaign:

  • Launch an internal campaign (posters, newsletters, talks) tackling mental health stigma head-on.

  • Highlight diverse employee stories (with consent) to normalize mental health journeys.

Policy Rollout:

  • Implement mental health days or updated leave policies with clear communication.

  • Enforce a zero-tolerance stance on mental health discrimination, updating policies if needed.

Phase 3: Building Support Systems

Mental Health Champions:

  • Recruit and train volunteer employees from various departments to act as peer supporters and mental health advocates.

  • Create clear guidelines for their role and a process for employees to contact them confidentially.

Community Connection:

  • Offer optional peer support groups facilitated by professionals or trained mental health champions.

  • Provide subsidies or discounts for mindfulness classes, gym memberships, or other well-being activities.

Workplace Culture Shift:

  • Actively promote work-life balance, discourage overwork, and model healthy coping mechanisms from leadership down.

  • Incorporate well-being check-ins into regular performance conversations.

Phase 4: Evaluation & Improvement

Metrics & Feedback:

  • Track the utilization of EAP services, mental health days taken, and other relevant data.

  • Conduct regular surveys to assess changes in stigma, awareness, and employee well-being.

  • Facilitate focus groups to gather qualitative feedback on initiatives.

Iterate & Adapt:

Use data and feedback to refine programs, address unmet needs, and ensure your approach remains effective.

Important Considerations:

  • Timeline: This is a long-term project. Set realistic milestones within each phase for manageable progress.

  • Customization: You can tailor this plan to your company's size, resources, and the specific needs identified in your Phase 1 assessment.

  • Partnerships: Consider collaborating with local mental health organizations for training or resources.

Key Insights

  • Mental health profoundly impacts workplace performance: Neglecting employee mental well-being leads to decreased productivity, absenteeism, presenteeism, and strained relationships, directly harming the bottom line.

  • Stigma is a significant barrier to seeking help: Fear, shame, and misconceptions prevent many employees from getting the support they need. Creating a stigma-free workplace is crucial for ensuring everyone's well-being.

  • Prioritizing mental health takes a multi-pronged approach: It requires a combination of awareness campaigns, practical support systems (like EAPs), training for leaders and employees, and a shift in overall workplace culture.

  • Employers play a vital role in fostering mentally healthy workplaces: Proactive policies, inclusive leadership, and resource investment demonstrate a genuine commitment to employee well-being and can drive positive business outcomes.

Key Questions to Ask

Is your workplace culture inadvertently contributing to mental health stigma?

If employees feel they have to hide their struggles, fear judgment for seeking help, or if mental health isn't discussed openly, then stigma is likely an obstacle. Creating a supportive and stigma-free environment is crucial for everyone's well-being.

Do you have the knowledge and skills to recognize signs that a colleague might be struggling with their mental health?

Mental health awareness training teaches you to identify potential signs of distress, how to have supportive conversations, and where to guide colleagues toward professional help. Being equipped with these skills empowers you to make a difference.

Are your current benefits and policies truly supportive of employee mental well-being?

Evaluate whether your company provides comprehensive mental health coverage, offers a helpful EAP, promotes work-life balance, and allows for mental health days when needed. These tangible supports are essential for fostering well-being beyond just words.

Does your leadership team model healthy coping mechanisms and prioritize their mental health?

When leaders openly prioritize their mental health, participate in well-being initiatives, and speak candidly about challenges, it sends a powerful message. This top-down support is vital for destigmatizing mental health concerns and creating a genuinely supportive culture.

Join the Hacking HR May Series:

Everything About Wellbeing and Mental Health At Work

Mental Health has become a critical imperative for people and organizations.

Join the Hacking HR May Series, "Everything About Wellbeing and Mental Health At Work."

This event series aims to redefine the narrative around mental ehalth in the workplace, shattering stigmas and fostering open conversations. Through a diverse array of sessions, attendes will explore the connection between mental health, productivity and organizational success, uncovering the tangible benefits of prioritizing employee wellbeing.

Click here to learn more and register at no cost!

Flyer of the Hacking HR May Series shows a banner on a green background with the title 'May Series. Everything About Well-being and Mental Health At Work."

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