The pandemic has increased stress in all areas of our lives, but especially in the workplace.
According to my research, which analyzed well-being during the second COVID-19 wave, 85 percent of people said their well-being has deteriorated during the pandemic.
Unfortunately, only 45 percent of employees feel they can talk about mental health with their boss.
There are consequences to keeping our mental health issues a secret. Our research found that 65 percent of the people who did not feel safe discussing mental health in the workplace openly experienced burnout often or extremely often. So how can we make it easier to talk to our mental health boss?
First, we must recognize barriers.
Understand the stigma
For anyone unfamiliar with the concept of behavioral health, “stigma” is defined as a level of shame, prejudice, or discrimination against people with mental health or substance abuse. Stigma existed long before the pandemic and continues today, despite the intensification of stress during the pandemic.
The National Academy of Medicine defines three primary forms of stigma:
- Self-stigma arises when we internalize and accept negative stereotypes.
- Public stigma (or social stigma) is society’s negative attitude towards a particular group of people.
- Structural stigma (stigma in the workplace) refers to discrimination at the system level — an example of this can be found in a survey where 30% of respondents feared that discussion of their mental health could cost them a promotion or even lead to being fired.
Unfortunately, 75 percent of employers acknowledge that there is stigma in their workplaces.
So how can employers reduce stigma at work?
Increase management and employee training. Start onboarding with Simple Mental Health 101 and continue educating people on the subject as part of a cultural shift — not just a one-year or two-year advocacy program.
Focus on reducing discrimination. It is important to offer more culturally sensitive solutions to mental health as part of your broader portfolio in mental health. According to Springhealth, an advocate for reducing discrimination in health care, “each group will face unique challenges, but there are some employees who will face more treatment barriers due to institutionalized racism and other forms of discrimination.”
Change the way we talk about mental health. Learn which language leads to stigma, and discourage its use. Also talk openly about mental health. Have regular conversations on the topic so that it is culturally normalized.
Provide psychological benefits. And do not take it for granted that every employee knows how to access companies’ tools for mental health. In one study, millennials were 63 percent more likely than boomers to know the proper procedure for finding a company’s mental health support.
Check-in. More frequent engagement with employees on non-work-related topics can develop trust, which leads to a more psychologically secure workplace. A weekly meeting to talk about what’s going on that has nothing to do with work can open up more communication channels and feedback.
Benefits of mental health openness in the workplace
Kate Toth, Ph.D. in Health Psychology and Director of Learning and Development at WorkWell, says that if employees feel confident in providing information, they can request accommodations that can help them better perform their jobs.
One less obvious thing, Toth shares, is that it takes a lot of energy and resources to carefully keep a secret: If I spend so much energy trying to make sure no one knows I’m fighting, then it’s energy I do not need to channel towards my work.
According to author Morra Aarons-Mele in a Harvard Business Review article: “Mental illness is a challenge, but it is not a weakness. Understanding your psyche can be the key to unleashing your strengths.”
Some of the benefits she mentions are:
- Increased ability to empathize with clients.
- Concern for others and the world around you can make you a more thoughtful and in harmony with the boss.
- It can also help create a desire to create new and interesting paths.
- Plus, when we recognize our mental health, we get to know ourselves better and are more authentic people, employees, and leaders.
- Research has also found that feeling authentic and open at work leads to better performance, commitment, employee retention and overall well-being.
How to talk to your boss about mental health
First, take some time to assess and write down what you are feeling and why. It is always good to come to a conversation prepared. You can refer to your notes in the meeting if you need it.
Then consider what you think you may need. Do you feel overwhelmed by the workload, or are their problems with other team members? Is it stress in the workplace or something in your personal life that affects you? Do you just need a safe place to talk? Having this conversation with yourself first makes you feel more mentally organized.
Then make sure the timing is right. Is this a good time for your boss? Do they have a hard stop that forces you to rush through the conversation? Should one or both of you go into a meeting after this conversation – in that case, it can be challenging if your feelings are high.
Make sure there is enough time to discuss how you are feeling and that you do not risk interrupting the meeting.
I agree that it is a difficult conversation to have with your manager. For anyone concerned about the consequences of having this conversation with your boss, consider that human resources may be a better solution.
But if you feel you can trust your manager to talk about your needs, please do so. We are in challenging times and the most important person in this scenario is you and your health.
We need to remind ourselves that there is no right way to feel right now. It is critical that in times of emotional distress, we put our needs first. Getting help is an important first step.
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