How to navigate talking about mental health at work

Employees are increasingly interested in mental health support at work. Workplaces aren't so sure.

office, work

Most people, around the world, spend one-third of their adult life at work. That means that whatever mental health struggles one experiences outside of work will inevitably be carried with one to work. What happens then is currently a subject of debate, as workers attempt to strike a balance between being healthy and being employed.

That’s simply, and unfortunately, because not every workplace is hospitable to mental health struggles. In an analysis published in October, a committee of experts determined that out of a group of 1,500 adults, fewer than 50 percent felt that mental health was prioritized at their company. Meanwhile, 86 percent felt that their company’s should have a culture where mental health is actively supported. Furthermore, 20 percent reported they had voluntarily left jobs before because of mental health reasons.

Professor David Blustein of Boston College, author of Importance of Work in an Age of Uncertainty, tells Inverse this problem can get worse because fear about job loss, the deterioration of social support at work, and the ongoing challenges of racism and sexism in the workplace and cause work itself to be a stressful experience.

“One of the issues that becomes apparent at work is that we are connecting to people who we did not necessarily choose to relate with,” Blustein says.

work, stress
The majority of people want to be at companies that prioritize mental health. 

While this all sounds extremely gloomy, workers don’t have to settle for existing in that state. He recommends that people discuss these situations with their mental health providers, and focus on their connections to friends and families. He also recommends that one be careful when discussing mental health with people at work.

“Disclosing to colleagues who one views as supportive and who are not in a position to evaluate one’s work could be a useful strategy to provide social support and some additional assistance on difficult days,” Blustein explains. “In an ideal world, it would seem optimal to share one’s experience with others.”

However, he notes, not all employers may view these disclosures in a non-judgmental way. That’s why he suggests people approach the question of self-disclosing mental health issues with coworkers and supervisors with caution.

Personally, he does think that employers “should certainly have some supports in place for workers who may be struggling with a host of challenges, including mental health problems.” This stance is also supported by the authors behind the October report.

That’s the ideal scenario and to get there, Blustein urges employers to provide training for human resources departments to give non-judgmental support and triage for workers. He also urges employers to develop caring policies. The findings from his book indicate that if employers do this, then they’ll enhance engagement and productivity.

He puts it bluntly: “It is time for American workplaces to become more concerned about the well-being of the working people who drive the organization than profits.”