How to Talk About Mental Health in the Workplace - Two women sitting on picnic bench talking

How to Talk About Mental Health in the Workplace

Haeli Harris
December 8, 2022
October 18, 2022

Talking about mental health can be confusing. What does mental health even mean? How do you start talking about mental health?

In this article, we make a case for why talking about mental health in the workplace is so important for HR leaders and managers. We will also walk you through how to talk about mental health at work with your direct reports.  

Why Talk About Mental Health in the Workplace?

When we don't talk about mental health, we pass up a huge opportunity for healing and community building.

80% of people will suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition in their lifetime. Even for those that are never diagnosed with a mental health condition, mental health is relevant and crucial for our overall wellbeing.

If you have ever struggled with stress, for instance, you can benefit by talking about mental health at work—and your employees can benefit, too.

62% of employees want leaders in their company to talk about mental health. This helps employees realize that they are not alone and that you are willing to support them during difficult times.

Here are three more reasons to talk about mental health in the workplace, even if it feels awkward.

1. To fight the mental health stigma

Our culture has created an atmosphere where it is scary to talk about our struggles.

When productivity, achievement, and stoicism are valued, people are less likely to speak up for fear that they will be looking down upon—or even lose their jobs. The stigma is so strong that many people deny that they are struggling, at home or in the office.

2. To help employees find support

One result of the stigma around mental health is that many people don't receive treatment for their struggles.

Only 50% of employees will ask for mental health support.

At least 1 in 3 people struggled with mental illness during the pandemic, and the mental health impacts aren't going anywhere.

75% of people who go to therapy feel better. Therapy can help anyone, no matter your stage of life or struggles, large or small.

3. To boost company wellbeing

Ignoring mental health in the workplace leads to a snowball effect. Employees struggle, and so does their performance and engagement. Employees get burnt out, top talent leave, and the company falters, or even fails.

The dimensions of wellness—emotional, occupational, intellectual, physical, and more—tie into our mental health. When companies start to support and accept the whole employee, everyone benefits, including families.

Employees who feel more comfortable and supported at work will be happier at home.

Perhaps one of the simplest mental health topics to start with is stress. Everyone can relate to stress, and it isn't as taboo to talk about it. Employees are more likely to say to you, "I'm feeling stressed," than "I have anxiety that makes it hard for me to focus on my work," at the start. So if you're looking for a starting place, stick with stress.

For more on the effects of mental health in the workplace, read: The Effects of Mental Health in the Workplace: What Employers Need to Know

How to Talk About Mental Health in the Workplace

Here are four steps for employers to start talking about mental health in the workplace (remotely or in the office):

  1. Talk about your own experiences
  3. Remember you're not a therapist
  5. Do wellness activities with your team
  7. Encourage a healthy balance

1. Talk about your own experiences

In your one-on-one meetings with your direct reports, spend some time rapport building. When they ask how you're doing, give them a tidbit of your experiences with mental health lately.

Perhaps you've been feeling a bit stressed, but that going on walks helps. Share that with them! Eventually, employees will feel more comfortable talking about their own mental health. It reminds them that you are human, too.

You could also ask your employees, "What can I do to support you today? How is your mental health? How are you coping?"

Then listen.

Many employees are fearful that they will be judged—or even fired—if they speak up about their mental health. Take the initiative and talk about it yourself!

If employees are still timid, consider creating a space to talk about mental health resources and experiences online. You could create a group chat or channel in your instant messaging service where employees are encouraged to share their experiences, talk about things they've learned, and offer support to others.

Why is it so awkward to talk about mental health but not about being sick with a cold? Talk about it. Mental health is health. Talking about your own mental health experiences will normalize it.  

2. Remember you're not a therapist

Your job is to provide access to mental health resources and help create a welcoming and safe place to work. You don't (and shouldn't) need to be the end-all-be-all for mental health discussions.

Don’t offer unsolicited advice, and don't try to fix others. Most people can benefit from just knowing that someone is listening to them.

Consider talking about tools that have helped you with your own mental health. Something along the lines of: “Something that has helped me manage my stress is scheduling at least a 45-minute break for lunch every day to disconnect from work, nourish my body with healthy food, and take a short walk.”

Validate their feelings, and provide reassurance where appropriate. Encourage self-care and help them find support by connecting them with hotlines or your company EAP. This blog post on finding the right EAP therapist for you is a great one to share.

You can do this during one-on-one meetings with employees or even with your entire team during a company-wide meeting.

Remember that you are not responsible for fixing anyone. Plus, minimizing the problem never helps. It can make things worse by causing the other person to feel guilt.

Don’t take what they say personally, either. It can be an honor for someone to open up about their mental health struggles with you.

You can also direct people to mental health resources that could help them like employee counseling, yoga, and meditation.

Know that the most common mental health issues are anxiety and depression, and take some time to learn about them.

You get the idea. Talking about mental health will increase the chances your employees will seek help.

3. Do wellness activities with your team

This is another great way to create a culture that prioritizes mental health. Wellness activities can include group yoga, meditation, journaling, cooking, painting, and fitness sessions.

During these activities, take time to get to know your employees on a more personal level. As these relationships grow, employees will be more likely to open up about their mental health challenges. Eventually, you can ask employees if these wellness activities or any other mental health initiatives are helpful to them.

If you're interested in joining the 87% of employers who have expanded their mental health programs since 2020, read this article on how to increase EAP utilization.

Related: How to Measure the ROI of Your Mental Health Program

4. Encourage a healthy balance

Without proper rest, employee mental health and productivity will suffer. Encourage employees to take time off. Create the expectation that employees take breaks during the day and stop answering emails by a certain time of the day.

You can take this a step future by providing more work flexibility. Allow employees to work from home more (if they don't already), and let employees take mental health days when needed.

Creating a Culture that Puts Mental Health First

Once you learn how to talk about mental health in the workplace, you can start addressing it! You will gain a better understanding of the specific support your employees need.

78% of Millennials want more mental health support from their employers to help them cope with stress, burnout, and other mental health issues. Common mental health benefits include therapy and fitness classes.

Addressing mental health in the workplace can make all the difference for your team's productivity, culture, and morale. It all starts with talking about mental health in the office!

For a deeper dive into talking about mental health with your direct reports, and supporting employee mental health in general, download the Manager Training Handbook or the Mental Fitness Toolkit.

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By participating in/reading the service/website/blog/email series on this website, you acknowledge that this is a personal website/blog and is for informational purposes and should not be seen as mental health care advice. You should consult with a licensed professional before you rely on this website/blog’s information. All things written on this website should not be seen as therapy treatment and should not take place of therapy or any other health care or mental health advice. Always seek the advice of a mental health care professional or physician. The content on this blog is not meant to and does not substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Haeli Harris
Haeli Harris
Haeli Harris, LMFT is the Director of Clinical Operations at Nivati. She has been practicing as a Marriage and Family Therapist since 2014. Haeli has experience working as a therapist in private practice settings, residential facilities, outpatient treatment care, schools, and telehealth.