How To Talk About Mental Health At Work & Why To Do It

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When you come into work, you're not doing your job in a vacuum. Whatever kind of day you're having and whatever kind of day your deskmate is having impacts how the workplace feels and how it functions. And that's OK — it's a natural part of what happens when humans come together in a space. But when you go to work every day, your mental health at the office is bound to come into conflict with the ways other people experience their mental health.

"Each individual person may have their own personal traumas, adversities, or stressors" that they bring with them into the office, professional psychotherapist and mental health advocate Liz Beecroft tells Bustle, ahead of delivering a workshop on reducing burnout at Bustle's New York City headquarters. Because of everyone's individual relationship with mental health, Liz tells Bustle that it's important to recognize the ways that "whole organizations can be influenced by trauma, adversity, and stress." Even for companies that don't deal directly with trauma or mental health as the subject of their work, addressing healing in the workplace is crucial.

Beecroft advocates for a trauma-informed work environment, which is necessary to "eliminate judgment, increase the feelings of support, and create a more understanding space." Otherwise, you will likely be the first person to judge yourself. If you're having a tough day in terms of your mental health, you may start assuming that work feels impossible because of some personal shortcoming. In fact, Beecroft says, work environments can inadvertently be damaging to your mental health when they give no space to the diversity of human emotion and health.

Zackary Drucker/The Gender Spectrum Collection

How do you start opening up space for mental health in the workplace? Beecroft tells Bustle that team and community meetings can be helpful to foster a culture of shared decision-making. This democratic approach, she says, is crucial for building a sustainable work environment in which people can work together with and through their traumas to do their jobs well and happily.

Other foundational aspects of your job can be used to create trauma-informed workplace, according to a 2014 report published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). In addition to employers recruiting and hiring people with personal experience and formal education in trauma care, the report concluded that creating a work environment that values employees as individuals is key in promoting workplace mental health.

For example, it's crucial to let staff influence policies that directly impact the way they work, the report concluded. It is also important to provide employees with health care and steady but flexible schedules. And there should be policies in place that normalize experiences of trauma rather than treat them like an individual character flaw, the report continued.

Zackary Drucker/The Gender Spectrum Collection

Being open about the mental health issues that may arise for people is huge, because otherwise, you will keep having to renegotiate what you need every time an issue comes up (as opposed to your workplace being proactive about providing a sense of security and resources for you). As Anne Helen Petersen, author of an influential 2019 BuzzFeed essay about burnout, wrote in a recent email newsletter, "we internalize that we shouldn't ask for more: instead, we should be grateful" for even the most minute, positive changes at work.

And for the employers out there trauma-informed, worker-first approaches to office culture are only likely to increase productivity. According to a 2018 study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, forgiveness from employers for work-related mistakes by employees not only improves the mental health of workers, but also enhances their productivity. And when employees perceive their company as caring about them and as being concerned about their health, their productivity levels increase, according to a 2015 study also published in the American Journal of Health Promotion.

But if you don't feel like you have control over how decisions are regarding your workplace structure, there is still a way you can try to approach colleagues and encourage them to approach you. Beecroft tells Bustle that it can be game-changing to simply "change the question that we ask about the people with whom we work from 'What’s wrong with you?' to 'What happened to you?'" This question can allow you to put empathy first such that even if you never ask it out loud, it might change how you see someone. And it might make you feel a little more comfortable expressing your own mental health needs, too.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.

Studies Referenced:

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014) Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207194/.

Chen, L. (2015) Perceived workplace health support is associated with employee productivity, American Journal of Health Promotion, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25559250.

Toussaint, L. (2018) Forgiveness Working: Forgiveness, Health, and Productivity in the Workplace, American Journal of Health Promotion, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27561296.

Experts:

Liz Beecroft, LMSW, psychotherapist and mental health advocate