It’s a lie we’ve all told at least once.
The workday’s been a struggle. You’re feeling burnt out, anxious, stressed or just plain overwhelmed.
Then a colleague asks: “How are you?”
And it slips out like a habit: “Oh, fine.”
But you’re not. You’re having a tough time. And it can be exceedingly difficult to talk about it.
Discussing mental health openly at work has never been the easiest thing. Despite a recently renewed focus on mental health, there’s still a stigma around feelings of weakness, unworthiness, burnout, and having difficulties in the workplace.
The thing is: being able to have conversations around mental health is important. Especially now, when we all seem to be more susceptible to bad days, weeks, or months (with no obvious end in sight). Even if you don’t feel like talking about mental wellness issues, it makes a big difference to feel like you can—that you won’t be belittled or have your job jeopardized because of it.
Why it can be hard to talk about mental health at work
Let’s take a look at a few reasons why it can be tough to be open and honest about mental wellness in the workplace.
Interacting with colleagues takes up a huge part of the workday - you can easily end up spending more time with them than with family. So it’s entirely understandable if sharing something as personal as mental health issues with them seems a bit scary. You may not want to connect on that level with co-workers you don’t trust, or you may not want to burden those you do. Even if you do feel like reaching out, thoughts of rejection can make it feel like a risky move.
You don’t want to be seen as “the only one”.
Being the first one to speak openly about not feeling alright can seem like a tall ask. And if your workplace culture tends to be more emotionally closed off, fears of being ostracized can be magnified. And since no one wants to be first, the closed culture perpetuates.
You don’t want to jeopardize your job.
Part of the stigma that keeps people from talking about their difficulties is a notion that you’re somehow less capable if you need help. If you admit to being overwhelmed, you may feel there’s a risk of losing out on future projects or advancement—especially in more competitive workplaces.
Why it’s important to feel like you can talk about mental health (knowing you don’t have to)
Even if you never choose to talk about mental health at work, you should still feel like you’re able to. Why?
Feeling unable to express yourself can make hard times worse.
At work, if you feel pressured to pretend you’re doing fine when you’re really not - it can be draining. On the other hand, a workplace that allows people to acknowledge and respect the truth of how they feel (even if it isn’t pretty) is one that’s gently encouraging resolution. Plus, allowing yourself to be authentically not OK just feels good, and is directly related to more well-being and a better work experience.
Talking to the right person can help.
It may be a conversation with HR, or it may be a breakroom chat with Jim from IT—but the simple act of opening up to people can do wonders. Mental health issues are often felt so privately, that having someone simply listen can provide a meaningful release.
It helps others be open too.
When you start sharing how you’re feeling, others will too. So more of you will realize that most of you are experiencing the same feelings. Pretty soon, it’s no longer stigmatized.
What workplaces (and co-workers) can do to help
Encourage awareness of mental health symptoms in yourself and others.
Normalizing mental wellness issues is where change starts. If you’re in an HR or management position, encouraging seniors and team leaders to be open about their difficulties can go a long way by setting an example. Even if you’re not a manager, demonstrating openness, self-care, and concern for the mental wellness of others can make a real impact on your colleagues.
Offer privately accessible resources that are available to meet people on their own terms.
Workplaces that offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are important but often struggle to get used. This is partly because, as people have to seek out these services, they feel like they get put on the radar as having a problem. (Self-service platforms like Calm offer support in a discreet, flexible way to help overcome this barrier.)
Provide clear, varied avenues of communication.
HR should ensure there's a clear, diverse team of individuals that employees know they can speak to. If there’s just one person named as a support contact, it’s unlikely they’ll be a great fit for every person in need. Ideally, the reaching out process should be easy, private and asynchronous - it can be easier for someone to express themselves when they can respond at their own pace.
And most importantly: don’t force anything.
Understand everyone has different comfort levels and will share what they want, when they feel it’s time. The best we can all do is make work a safe place for sharing our vulnerabilities and mental wellness issues.
The path towards discussing mental health in the workplace comfortably isn’t a short one—but it’s absolutely a worthy one. Thoughtful moves in the right direction add up.
Here’s some Calm content that can help you work happier:
8 Practical Strategies for Work-From-Home Resilience
Everything You Need to Know About Burnout at Work