How To Talk About Mental Health at Work

“Burnt out” is the status quo for over a quarter of today’s workers. How did we get here? And, more importantly, what can organizations do to normalize looking after mental health at work?

The Sunday Blues: we all get them sometimes. 

And you might feel reassured to know that those Sunday afternoon waves of lethargy, anxiety and even panic have neurological backing, too. 

According to Dr. Linda Straus, it’s the neocortex that’s responsible for Sunday Blues; an evolutionary response to upcoming negative experiences, like a 6am alarm clock, that email you left unresolved on Friday afternoon, or a client you can’t seem to gel with.

And with the neocortex being almost half the total volume of the human brain, it’s hardly surprising those Sunday Blues can feel overwhelming at times.

But as important as it is to isolate the root causes of work-related stress and anxiety, there’s another essential piece of the puzzle: talking about how you feel.

As the old saying goes: “A problem shared is a problem halved”. But some workplaces are more welcoming of these conversations than others. “I’m feeling stressed”. “This task is making me anxious”. “I think I’m close to burning out”. While these comments should be seen as marks of bravery, they’re too often stigmatized; considered signs of weakness, or workflow interruptions, instead.

And although from a purely project management perspective, a team member taking a “mental health day” may bring productivity to a pause or potentially threaten a deadline, this is just a momentary blocker. If we allow our teams to keep slogging on, ignoring signs of ill mental health, the ramifications will be far worse indeed.

For the sake of ourselves, our colleagues and our business’s long-term commercial success, we all need to talk about mental health at work.

Here’s where we should start…

Understanding mental health (and its many, many guises)

How do you define ‘mental health’?

If you ask the World Health Organization, they’d say it’s not just the “absence of mental disorder”, like stress, anxiety or depression. Instead:

“It is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community."

That’s a powerful definition — and it’s one we can all connect to in some way.

Maybe, for you, burnout manifests itself in working unproductively. That altogether unfulfilling experience of tapping away at your keyboard for hours on end, but not really having much to show for it. 

Or maybe stress looks like underperforming against your potential — feeling like you’re falling short of your personal and professional goals. Perhaps the opposite is true, too; where from the outside-in, it might look like you’re nailing it… but in your own mind things are crashing down all around you.

Equally, you could feel just as stressed and drained because you can’t see meaning in your work. “What’s the point?”, “What am I contributing by doing this?”. Those are damaging and de-motivating thoughts for anyone to overcome.

The point is: we need to open up our understanding and interpretation of mental health, because it’s different for everyone. In the same way we have different pain thresholds, we have different tipping points for ‘good stress’ (which is a thing) and ‘bad stress’, too.

We all show healthy and unhealthy mental states in different ways, as well.

Some colleagues might exhibit stress via high energy discussions, but not a lot of action. Others might hide away in their office, or work from home, in a state that’s close to total shutdown. Some individuals wear their heart on their sleeve; others try for a ‘stiff upper lip’ approach.

So if there’s no one way of identifying a happy, healthy co-worker from someone who needs support, how do managers intervene?

The answer, as with many management challenges, comes down to communication.

It’s good to talk. Here’s why...

Let’s pause for a moment to consider the importance of mental health conversations at work.

In a recent research study by Gallup, 28% of employees agreed they felt burnt out either “always” or “very often”. For 48% of the sample, the answer was “sometimes”. Add these figures together, and we learn that as few as 24% of the workforce experience a 9 to 5 free from running on empty.

Those stats are totally back to front. 

Stress, tired and burnt out should be the exception, not the rule. 

And this isn’t just an ethical argument to have — although that’s an essential way to look at it too. While it simply isn’t fair to work employees down to the ground, a tired workforce has serious implications for commercial potential as well. 

In the same study, Gallup found that burnt out employees are 63% more likely to take sick days. And illness-related lost productivity costs US businesses $530 billion per year. Depression can result in 200 million lost work days alone.

And keep in mind, this study was conducted prior to proliferation of Covid-19, which has only exacerbated the issue. While it’s still too early to make definitive conclusions, there are numerous ongoing studies investigating the impact Covid-19 has had on impacting psychological well-being, and early indicators are pointing to a marked uptick in cases of sickness caused by stress, depression and anxiety.

And with the vast majority of workers still to start talking about mental health at work, could communication be part of the solution?

A manager’s role in promoting mental health at work

We mentioned before about isolating the root cause of ill mental health at work: is it mounting deadlines? Is it disengagement with goals, colleagues, or the overall mission? Is the expectation to work longer, harder and more flexibly at the same time?

Any of the above could be true. But there’s another contributing factor, one that’s a little closer to home: managers.

Gallup calls ineffective managers “the cause of burnout, rather than the cure”. And writing for Harvard Business Review, workplace expert Jennifer Moss says something similar:

“We tend to think of burnout as an individual problem, solvable by “learning to say no,” more yoga, better breathing techniques, practicing resilience — the self-help list goes on. But evidence is mounting that applying personal, band-aid solutions to an epic and rapidly evolving workplace phenomenon may be harming, not helping, the battle [...] Leaders take note: It’s now on you to build a burnout strategy.

But if managers can’t rely on their own interpretation of other people’s mental health — as we all show our levels of coping in different ways — nor rely on employees to tell them themselves that they’re feeling unwell...how do we figure it out?

In a shared study by Mind Share Partners, SAP, and Qualtrics, 86% of employees agreed that a company’s culture should support mental health. And that sort of commitment has to start at the top. So let’s hone in there: what steps can leaders take today, to set the scene for more meaningful workplace mental health discussions?

How to talk to your team about mental health

If you’ve ever embarked on a serious, but impromptu, conversation with a friend or family member, you’ll have quickly realized that a little groundwork can go a long way.

The same is true at work. Before you can expect employees to open up to you, you need to create the right atmosphere for disclosure...

Reassure on psychological safety

Before anything is verbalized, you need a culture of psychological safety — where colleagues feel confident to be themselves, take risks and to ask for help.

Remember the stigma that’s too commonly attached to mental health issues? That’s what we must work to overcome. In many ways, this comes from the leaders themselves; being seen to be vulnerable, open and, well, human encourages others to do the same, and to welcome it from other people.

Help colleagues find their purpose

Work commitments can be demanding, there’s no denying (or avoiding) that truth. 

Some people thrive under that pressure: “That fight or flight response can kick us into gear sometimes” explains Kathleen Gunthert, a professor of psychology and leader of the The Stress and Emotion Laboratory at American University. But too much stress — or distress? — brings everything to a halt, for some people sooner than others.

There’s a reason that the WHO puts importance on “contribution” in their definition of mental health. Because when an employee can see how their extra effort translates into a greater good for the business or community, that’s a tonic for one or two late nights.

For managers, the task is this: learn and understand what motivates your employees, what gives them meaning, and what will likely stress them out. This becomes difficult when you’re managing tens, or hundreds, of people but the message remains: mental health is individual, so you need to know the individual before you have the conversation.

A word of warning for remote teams though: don’t let it be out of sight, out of mind. Check in with anyone working away, or working from home, as often as you would if they were in-house — more often, if you can! Why? Because these workers may struggle especially to connect with their purpose, day in and day out.

Once your teams feel psychologically safe and you’ve helped them identify their purpose, then those valuable conversations can really begin.

Help them reach their potential

...and you can try to stretch (not stress) them further. 

Focus on their learning and development. Agree goals that will help them grow, not just get the job done. And commit to on-going performance catch-ups, to see how they’re getting on.

Ask open ended questions

“Are you okay?”. It’s a well-meaning query, but it doesn’t get you very far.

Open ended questions — “How are you feeling today?”, “How does this week compare to last?”, “What can we do to help?” — are the ones that empower people to let you in. 

It takes time, effort and a whole lot of trust to get employees to talk to you about their mental health. And when given the option of a closed answer, “Yes, I’m fine”, they may just take it.

As a manager, it’s your responsibility to start these conversations (uncomfortable as they may be at first). But if you lean into the challenge — and take the good stress as the motivating force that it is — you could entirely redefine your company culture for the better, improving the employee experience for managers and workers alike.

Just make sure you’ve got someone you can talk to, too.

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