May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so this month we are rethinking the ways we can support positive mental health for all people, at work, and in our personal lives. At some point in our lives, we all have to learn how to care for our mental health or the state of our mental and emotional wellness. All too often our culture discounts the importance of mental health in comparison to physical health when in reality, they are both vital and deeply connected to each other.
Mental health is also deeply entwined with our working lives. Work can cause stress and overwork, leaving us without adequate time to care for ourselves physically and emotionally. Similarly, the impact of mental illness can bleed over into work, creating challenges of accessibility, discrimination, and inequality. As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, this is all more important than ever; recent surveys have shown an astonishing 60% of workers are worried about their mental health right now.
In this article, we’ll discuss the intersections of mental health and work, and how we can work to improve mental health for all.
Mental health affects everyone
When we talk about mental health, it’s important to note that mental health affects everyone. We all may struggle with our mental health to varying degrees, but all of us do have to put work into our mental wellness at some point in our lives. This is true whether you live with a diagnosed mental health disorder or mental illness, as at least 50 million Americans do, or your mental well-being fluctuates due to stress, physical illness, or grief.
By the same token, it’s worth acknowledging the specific barriers that folks with mental illnesses face in the modern workplace.
Work can exacerbate mental health problems
Work alone is a very common cause of stress. Crucially, chronic mental illness is already a source of long-term stress for the people who suffer from it, due to the emotional toll of psychological pain, isolation, and exhaustion. The mental energy needed to function with a mental illness often leaves people without the resources they need to handle extra stress in addition to their usual burdens. Together, these factors create a positive feedback loop that continues to cause escalating stress and struggle.
Because work factors into this delicate balancing act for so many of us, it’s important to consider how accessible your work environment is for people with mental illnesses, and whether you are helping those people or creating barriers to their success.
Work culture & affirming language
Culture plays a significant role in creating an environment that supports positive mental health and a healthy work-life balance. Are employees expected to be always available or to check their email late into the night? Does your work environment tolerate moments of “weakness” like employees feeling emotional or admitting that they are struggling? Can employees come to managers with doubt or requests for advice without worrying about their job security? All of these things play into healthy work culture, and by extension, mental health at work.
Likewise, does your office have a policy of affirming and inclusive language? Normally when we speak about inclusive language, we think of racial and gender inclusion. But another type of inclusive language is a language that does not make assumptions about a person’s mental health status and does not use words that cast folks with mental illness in a bad light. Words like “crazy” and “insane” are frequently thrown around without a second thought, and it’s commonplace to hear people joking about “being so OCD” if they prefer an organized environment. These small misuses of language are stress-inducing and hurtful, and they communicate to employees that those with mental illnesses are not welcome.
Though many mental illnesses are protected against work discrimination thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, discrimination against those with mental illness still occurs. Consider how your hiring screening for culture fit may be eliminating those with different experiences or backgrounds.
You might also consider the small, unintentional ways a person might be punished for attending to their mental health. Is it acceptable to take a mental health day when you need one?
Privacy and stigma
One of the things that contribute to stress at work is the challenge of keeping mental health concerns private from managers and coworkers. Of course, everyone is entitled to keep that information completely private if they so choose. Mental health falls under physical health and is therefore confidential between a person and their medical provider.
But what if someone wants to voice their struggles but fears retribution? If your work culture doesn’t support inclusive language and non-discrimination for those with mental health concerns, employees might be concerned about the consequences of being honest.
So what can we do to support positive mental health at work?
Positive work culture
Culture makes all the difference, and thankfully it is something that can be nurtured and grown. Allowing and encouraging employees to be honest about their mental health, and making it clear that there will be no retribution for doing so, can make all the difference. Likewise, encourage employees to use affirming, inclusive language that doesn’t contribute to negative stigma for people with mental illnesses.
Positive work culture also means acknowledging weaknesses, allowing for growth, and being open-minded. If you’re concerned about the mental health of your employees, a training day may be in order. Solicit suggestions for what you can do to create a culture of acceptance and support.
Mental health care
Mental health care is a vital piece of destigmatizing mental illness. Advocate for mental health coverage to be included with medical benefits. Even those without mental health concerns will appreciate the safety net that such access provides; if they ever begin to struggle, they will know that the resources are there for them to access.
Social justice positive environment, intersectionality
We can’t talk about mental health at work without mentioning intersectionality, or the way in which a person’s many identities and experiences can influence others. For example, a Black person’s experience of seeking mental health care may be different from a white person’s. Experiences of racism and discrimination can contribute to mental health concerns. People with physical disabilities and members of the LGBTQ+ community also experience difficulties with the intersections of their marginalized experiences with mental health concerns.
For these reasons, it’s important that actions are taken to improve the inclusivity of your work culture takes a social justice perspective.
Another thing you can do to support mental health at work is to encourage your employees to be allies. This may include sensitivity or diversity training. The goal is to lighten the burden of positive change for those who actually suffer from mental illness. People with mental illnesses can’t be the only ones advocating for an inclusive environment. Allies who stand with them are a valuable part of improving the climate for everyone.
Wellness programs, like in-office yoga, meditation and exercise programs, and company retreats, are often suggested as ways that companies can reduce stress and create a healthy environment for their employees. These are great benefits, and research has shown significant mental health benefits of things like meditation, yoga, and exercise. But these things alone cannot compensate for unreasonable work-life balance, toxic work culture, or discrimination.
Many of us have been working virtually since the start of the pandemic. But have you considered extending the program indefinitely? Many reports that flexible or virtual work-from-home arrangements have been positive for their mental health. It may be worth surveying your employees to see if they prefer to continue work-from-home, to return to the office, or to start up a flexible, mixed return to in-person work. One of the best ways to support your employee’s mental health is to engage them in the decision-making processes so that they feel they have a voice.
Mental health at work is a tricky issue, one that we are all trying to navigate our way through, especially as the stressful COVID-19 pandemic begins to wane. Follow these tips to improve your company’s culture and support those with mental health concerns through this difficult time.
As always, if you are suffering from anxiety, depression, unmanaged stress, or other mental health concerns, speak with your primary care physician or another medical professional. Help is available, and you are worth it.