Newman HR
Newman HR Consulting

January 19, 2024

Starting the Conversation: How to Talk About Mental Health at Work

Why It’s High Time We Pushed the Needle Further

 We now acknowledge the importance of managing mental health, but we continue to struggle in the workplace to achieve full openness and support. There’s still a stigma around it. Many people, either individual contributors  or leaders feel uncomfortable or worried they’ll be judged. That’s exactly why starting this conversation is as important as having a fire exit in the office – it’s about safety and well-being, both as employees at work, and as individuals in our roles at home as spouses, parents and friends.

Tips for Management: Lead the Way

Authentic Leadership – Walk the Talk: Be a role model by sharing your own experiences. I work with one leader whom I respect and when he’s having a bad day, he lets people know – “Sorry, this just isn’t a good day.  Can we discuss that later?” By doing that, he lets his staff know that he’s human too and that it is okay not to be on top of your game every single minute.  A personal disclosure also builds trust.    

Create a Safe Space – Psychological Safety: It’s not enough to say that your door is always open. Despite our increasing awareness, many employees are more comfortable talking about a broken arm than about depression.  Developing accommodations to mitigate trauma takes time, so demonstrate an openness to creating solutions. Encourage your team to talk about mental health just like they would a physical ailment.  Welcome the discussions, respect their confidences and demonstrate compassion and empathy.  

Provide Expert Support :  The fastest growing benefits programs in Canada in 2024 are Employee Assistance Plans.  These plans, usually provided by a specialist organization, provide employees with confidential access to counselling services as part of a benefits program.  There are many options for these and they can be custom designed to suit your employees and your budget.  Having worked with these programs for over 30 years, I can guarantee that the benefits far outweigh the costs. Surprisingly, the costs are less than your dental or prescription drug coverage premiums. The key benefit is that employees get help with their issues, rather than being distracted at work, or having to take time off work due to mental health issues.

Educate and Inform: If you have an Employee Assistance Plan, leverage your supplier extensively.  EAP programs are a great support, and like any benefit program, they benefit from regular reminders to staff, particularly once the program has been introduced.  If you don’t have an external supplier, consider bringing in community organizations who can talk about mental health.  Specific topics could include managing elder care, dealing with dementia, managing finances, how to handle grief – all stressors in today’s environment. Knowledge is power, and a five minute tip from an expert can save hours of anguish.   The more you share, the more  misconceptions are dissolved and this encourages further conversations.  Lunch ‘n Learn sessions, either virtually or in a live setting, create communities for discussion. 

Policy Matters: Take a systemic look at your all policies, not just those that deal with mental health, but any policies that will help to identify and reduce the pressures on staff that lead to stress.  These can include policies such as Disconnect from Work, flexible hours, paid personal emergency days (rather than sick days), or mental health days (with no questions asked).   One of our clients in healthcare provides additional paid time off for traumatic issues in the workplace.   You can also consider four day work weeks to provide increased work/life balance.  In 2024, many of our clients who cover paramedical services under their insured benefits plans have increased their allowances for counselling services of up to $1,000 per year.  

As part of that process, review your Violence and Harassment Policy, with particular emphasis on domestic violence.  If you become aware of someone experiencing domestic violence, work with them to ensure their safety at work.    Ensure that you conduct an annual survey of staff on their level of safety – both physical and mental in the workplace.

Tips for Employees: Your Voice Matters

  1. Start Small: Initiating Gentle Conversations
    • Begin by incorporating subtle gestures into your daily interactions. A simple, “How are you really doing?” during coffee breaks or team meetings can create openings for more profound discussions. Starting small helps in gradually building trust and rapport.
  2. Be a Listener: Cultivating Empathy
    • Actively listening is a skill that can make a significant impact. When a colleague opens up, focus on being present and empathetic. Allow them the space to express themselves without feeling the pressure for immediate solutions.
  3. Encourage Peer Support: Sharing Strategies for Well-being
    • If you’ve discovered effective coping mechanisms for stress or anxiety, share them with your team. Whether it’s introducing a mindfulness app or suggesting a group lunchtime walk, these personal anecdotes can serve as powerful tools for fostering a supportive atmosphere.
  4. Reach Out: Prioritizing Self-Care
    • If you find yourself grappling with mental health challenges, don’t hesitate to initiate a conversation with your manager or HR. Recognize that seeking support is a proactive step towards self-care, contributing to your overall well-being.

Breaking the Ice: Conversation Starters

  1. Share an Article or Video: Cultivating Awareness
    • Act as a conduit for knowledge by sharing insightful articles or videos related to mental health with your team. This not only brings awareness to the topic but also provides a platform for open discussions.
  2. Organize a Casual Team Meeting: Creating Safe Spaces
    • Arrange informal team meetings focused on general well-being. Gradually transition these discussions toward mental health, creating a safe space for team members to share their thoughts, experiences, and coping strategies.
  3. Use Health and Well-being Days: Strategic Utilization
    • Take advantage of designated health and well-being days within your organization to initiate conversations about mental health. These days provide a structured platform to address the topic without singling out individuals.

A Few Don’ts to Keep in Mind

  1. Don’t Make Assumptions or Leap to Judgment: Acknowledging Uniqueness
    • Every individual’s mental health journey is unique. Avoid making assumptions or passing judgment on others’ experiences, creating an atmosphere of understanding and acceptance.
  2. Avoid Judgmental Comments: Fostering Supportive Environments
    • Maintain a supportive and non-judgmental tone during conversations. This not only encourages open dialogue but also fosters an environment where individuals feel safe sharing without fear of criticism.
  3. Respect Privacy: Upholding Confidentiality
    • When someone confides in you, treat their information with the utmost confidentiality. Seek permission before sharing their experiences, ensuring a foundation of trust within the workplace.

Conclusion:

Increasing the dialogue on mental health in organizations starts with small yet intentional actions. Everyone has the power to contribute to a culture of openness and support. By embracing these tips and fostering an environment where mental health is prioritized, you can make a significant impact on the well-being of yourself and your colleagues. Together, let’s break the stigma surrounding mental health and create workplaces that prioritize the holistic health of their employees.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What if I’m not comfortable talking about my own mental health issues at work?

A: That’s totally okay. You’re not obligated to share personal details. Focus on general topics like stress management or work-life balance if that’s more comfortable for you.


Q: How do I initiate a conversation about mental health with a colleague without making them uncomfortable?

A: Start with a casual approach, expressing genuine concern and using open-ended questions. Avoid prying and be mindful of their comfort level. Respect their confidence in you. 

Q: If I notice a colleague struggling, what steps can I take to support them without overstepping boundaries?

A: Offer a listening ear, express concern, and let them know you’re there for support. Respect their boundaries and encourage them to reach out for professional help if needed.

Q: Is it appropriate to discuss my own mental health journey with colleagues?

A: It depends on your comfort level and the workplace culture. Sharing personal experiences can foster understanding, but always gauge the appropriateness of such discussions in your specific work environment.

Q: What if my workplace doesn’t have a formal mental health policy?

A: You can still advocate for mental health discussions by initiating conversations, organizing awareness sessions, and encouraging the establishment of a supportive culture. Your voice can contribute to positive change.

Q: How can I handle discussions about mental health when working remotely?

A: Virtual communication tools offer opportunities for discussions. Initiate virtual coffee breaks or team check-ins, and use online platforms to share relevant articles or resources about mental health.

Q: What if I’m concerned that discussing mental health might negatively impact my career?

A: It’s a valid concern, but many workplaces are becoming more aware of the importance of mental health. If you’re uncomfortable discussing it openly, consider reaching out to HR privately for guidance and support.

Helpful Link

Canadian Mental Health Organization:  With 330 community locations, CMHA is a nationwide organization that promotes mental health and supports people recovering from mental illness.    cmha.ca

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