Talking about mental health at work

Mental health shouldn't just happen on weekends. Explore why talking about mental health at work helps everyone.

Talking about mental health at work illustration

15 percent of workers who communicate their struggles to their managers face disciplinary procedures, demotion, or even dismissal. | Photo Credit: ©dariodraws / Adobe Stock

Talking about mental health at work matters

If you want a healthy workplace and an engaged productive team, it is time to know how to talk about mental health at work.

It took me a while to pluck up the courage to talk about mental health at work, or maybe I had just gotten myself to a stage where I couldn’t deny that I needed help. Either way, one day, I knocked on the glass door of my boss’ office and without letting her talk, announced my pre-prepared speech like a child at the school play: 

“I’ll need to take two hours out on Wednesday afternoons for my mental wellbeing. Of course, I have no problem making up the time throughout the week. And, I’d really appreciate this staying between us.” 

“That’s fine, I believe in the benefits of mental health days, take the day off if you need it” she replied without looking up from her screen.

It felt as if I’d ripped off the plaster on my pride. I hated admitting to my boss I was weak (not that having a mental health issue is a weakness). That could not keep up with the pace or that I was somehow an overly sensitive crybaby. All this ruminating and all I was doing was placing my expectations of her judgments at the forefront of my decision. You know, the thing is, I didn’t know her experience or exposure to mental health issues. 

She may have troubles herself, or a friend or family member could be struggling. Maybe there were others in the office going through what I was experiencing. I could have interpreted her response, which consisted of an affirmative “that’s fine,” in a thousand different ways, but what good would it do? It was not the most compassionate of responses, but I felt a flood of relief.

Leaving her office, I felt I had taken significant action to regain control back from my anxiety by not lying to my boss about my mental health. I had built a concrete step I could point at and say, “look, this is me minding myself because I deserve it.” That was a big deal for me. 

Before speaking to my boss, I felt I had three options: I could lie and go to therapy, tell the truth and go to treatment, or end up not going to therapy. I couldn’t have gone after work with my level of anxiety.

I didn’t want to lie anymore or deny myself the right to treatment. I felt trapped, lost, and distracted at work. Something needed to change; if I didn’t, I might break. A lot of my mental health stem from anxiety and depression, and honestly, I didn’t want to go to therapy if it meant having to inform my boss I couldn’t keep up with the relentless pace. 

Sleepless nights followed every new deadline. I convinced myself I was coping for a few weeks, but cracks started to appear. I would find myself in the bathroom more and more, trying to calm myself down. I couldn’t brush my anxiety off because no one can. It needs work and persistence. So that’s why I came clean to my boss about my mental health.

“Depression and anxiety have a significant economic impact; the estimated cost to the global economy is US$ 1 trillion per year in lost productivity.”

World Health Organization

Knowing how to talk about mental health at work helps everyone

I understand it’s hard to change before society does but talking about mental health at work helps everyone.

We are programmed to want to fit in as a natural protective instinct; being ostracised is a genuine fear built into our psyche. Many people are blacklisted as lazy, having a poor work ethic, or even having a roguish rebellion from authority when they are dishonest about their struggles. That is the fault of the vague excuses we invent. I would argue that the lies became more dangerous to my career than honesty about mental health could ever be.

Viewing the issue from the other side of the table is also important. Our work environments can only be impacted positively if we talk about mental health at work. This is why it’s appalling that 15 percent of workers who communicate their struggles to their managers face disciplinary procedures, demotion, or even dismissal.

With one in four people struggling with mental health each year, I can’t fathom this prejudice. It is so overwhelmingly harsh and callous. Compassionate companies, I believe, build a sense of trust and authenticity. That not only makes them enticing prospective employers but also encourages employees to take risks and be more innovative because they know they won’t be scolded for what could be seen as a failure but rather appreciated for ‘giving it a go.’

"I understand it’s hard to change before society does but talking about mental health at work helps everyone."

Mental health shouldn’t just happen on weekends

I have never been more creative than when I overcame my anxiety; colleagues noted the shift, remarking that I was clearing my desk of tasks like lightning! Concerning the productivity, I find it bizarre that people regard self-care to only exist on the weekends. My productivity slowly but surely increased as I got back on top of my anxiety. I was no longer glumly clocking in and out but contributing and innovating.

Knowing how to talk about mental health at work isn't easy. I feel we are in a teamwork-obsessed work culture where many corporations promote a bland sense of individuality but typically search for ‘team players’ and ‘outgoing personalities.’ But what good is a team without each member taking care of themselves?

Suppose you look at the fact that 34 percent of sick days are taken due to work-related stress. In that case, it immediately shows the importance companies should place on supporting their workers’ emotional well-being. I honestly don’t see anything daft about workers taking self-care days when they are overwhelmed.

Below is a beautiful tweet by Madalyn Rose that I found captures the benefits of talking about mental health at work. Is shows what opening up can do to improve a company’s culture and improve the culture. It shows the fun side of self-care. It doesn’t have to be a Kleenex counseling session, but a picnic in the park or even just a day to slow down. These days are crucial in preventing a mental illness from becoming chronic and debilitating.

A screenshot about talking about mental health at work.

If more workplaces could adopt this progressive, open dialogue around mental health, we would enjoy a much healthier, more balanced society. In addition, workshops for managers on addressing mental health topics would be such a huge benefit. 

It takes courage to approach someone in authority about such personal struggles. My own shame crumbled once I refused to let my anxiety win, and the boss supported me. Once I refused to remain muzzled by the fear of judgment. Mental health prejudice at work needs to end for people to live with hope and happiness.

"Talking about mental health at work: A vital conversation that transforms the workplace, nourishing minds and fostering a culture of empathy, productivity, and well-being."

Article by
Roseanne Murphy

Roseanne Murphy, the author of "Talking about mental health at work," is a writer and studio owner at The Yoga Nook: a centre for holistic wellbeing in Ireland.