Can one honest conversation about mental health at work change anything?

by Roseanne Murphy

A pensive young Asian woman who wants to talk about mental health at work but is reluctant to do so.

15 percent of workers who communicate their struggles to their managers face disciplinary procedures, demotion or even dismissal.


©Sunghee / Adobe Stock

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It is time for me to talk about mental health at work

It took me a while to pluck up the courage, 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,” she replied without looking up from her screen.

It felt as if I’d ripped off a plaster on my pride. I hated admitting to my boss I was weak. That could not keep up with the pace or that I was somehow an overly sensitive cry-baby. 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 in regaining 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 had three options: I could lie and go to therapy, tell the truth and go to treatment, or end up not going to therapy at all. I couldn’t have gone after work with my level of anxiety. Imagine the other drives!

Instead, I had to take the single bus in and out each day. 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, and if I didn’t, I might break. A lot of my mental health stems from anxiety, and honestly, I didn’t want to go to therapy if it meant having to inform my boss I couldn’t keep up the 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

Improving mental health at work helps everyone

I understand it’s hard to change before society does. 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.

It’s also important to view the issue from the other side of the table. Our work environments can only be impacted positively by open discussion of mental health. 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.’

Self-care 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 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.

Read more: What is it like living with OCD?

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? If you look at the fact that 34 percent of sick days are taken due to work-related stress, it immediately shows the importance companies should place on supporting their workers’ emotional wellbeing. 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 what opening up can do to improve a company’s 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.

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 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.

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Article by Roseanne Murphy

Getting to grips with gripping my readers. Rallying troops for the Uncomfortable Revolution.



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