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Mental Health Matters: How To Talk About
Mental Health in the Workplace

Talking about mental health in the workplace isn’t easy. While we may be OK bringing up a physical ailment, most of us aren’t so comfortable discussing our emotional wellness with a manager. But given the mental health statistics in the U.S. and our experience with the pandemic, we know these discussions are absolutely critical. So how can you start to normalize talking about mental health? In this week’s blog, we offer some suggestions for starting mental health conversations in your organization.

First, why are we so hesitant to talk about mental health at work?

We don’t have to think too hard to answer this one. Put simply, we don’t want to be perceived as weak, unstable, or unable to do our jobs. We’re worried about getting fired. We fear what our coworkers will think of us. We’ve been taught to “keep a stiff upper lip.” The list goes on and on.

There are also some uniquely American cultural factors at play. As a recent Harvard Business Review article states: “because professionalism has long been associated with being stoic, rational, and unemotional, we can assume that most people are used to passing up opportunities to discuss emotions and build authentic connections at work.”

Suffice to say, as Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, notes, “Many people believe that whatever their mental health challenges are, they don’t belong in the workplace.”1 1. WorkLife with Adam Grant Podcast. We should allow sad days, not just sick days (Transcript). July 27, 2021.

That should hopefully change as younger employees continue entering the workforce. According to a 2019 poll by the American Psychiatric Association, younger workers are much more likely to feel they can discuss their mental health—in fact, millennials are almost twice as likely as baby boomers to be comfortable (62% vs. 32%).

In the meantime, what can we do to start reducing the stigma?

The stigma of mental health in the workplace may be lower than it used to be, but there are still things employers can do to continue normalizing mental health discussions at work. First, we have to make sure we have the right resources available to help employees with a mental health concern—like an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), access to tele-mental health, or other mental health-related benefits. Companies are definitely making this a priority. A 2020 Willis Towers Watson survey found that 66% of companies said they would prioritize access to high-quality mental health solutions in their healthcare program.

But what will likely have the biggest impact on reducing mental health stigma in the workplace is getting leadership and managers to role-model what it looks like to be open about mental health. This is where cultural change really starts—and how it sticks. Below, I share how people in leadership and management positions can support mental health at work.

How leadership can begin to normalize mental health in the workplace.

Share stories.

CEOs and senior executives aren’t immune to mental health challenges. So encourage them to open up about times they struggled and how they sought help, or have them share a story of a close friend or family member’s experience and how it affected them. Hearing a person in a position of authority and power talk about their own mental health helps build a culture of compassion. In addition, it empowers others across the organization to speak up about their personal struggles as well. Videos and company-wide meetings are two forums where this kind of storytelling works well.

Model healthy habits.

Leaders should block time on their calendars for exercise, meditation, or family commitments. They should talk about taking mental health days and encourage their own teams to take time off as well. And if a leader has chosen to take a mental health day, have them reflect this in their out-of-office replies. For example, something as simple as, “I am taking a mental health day to focus on some self-care” can resonate with your employees and empower them to do the same. If your company has a flexible work policy where everyone works from home on certain days, make sure executives do the same. Again, the more people see their managers and executive leaders role-model healthy behaviors, the more they’ll feel inspired to take care of their own mental health.

Take bold action in support of mental health.

Over the past year, in the face of the mental health challenges brought on by the pandemic, we’ve seen organizations make some pretty radical changes in their work culture. Some have set strict parameters around communication during off-hours, while others have mandated vacation time or instituted four-day workweeks. Extended leave or sabbaticals are more widely accepted. Actions like these send a powerful signal that the organization prioritizes mental health.

How managers can support their team’s mental health.

In some ways, managers are in the best position to make real change when normalizing the discussion of mental health on their team. Here are some ways that mid-level managers can support their employees’ mental health:

Be observant.

During meetings and one-on-ones, try to notice any changes in your team members. Some things that might indicate a team member is struggling include:

  • Not participating during virtual or regular meetings
  • Body language—head down, staring into space, distracted
  • Letting deadlines slip
  • Showing up to virtual meetings in unprofessional clothing or being consistently late
  • Not having cameras on for virtual meetings when they typically would
  • Changes in weight or appearance

If you’ve noticed different behaviors in a team member, you might say, “For the past week, I’ve noticed you’ve been distracted and seem a little sad. Is everything OK?” Don’t be afraid to acknowledge that talking about mental health makes you nervous—if it does—but you’re doing it because you care about the person.

Check in on how people are feeling.

Be prepared for a quick “I’m fine.” To which you might respond, “No, really, how are you?” Asking twice shows that you are genuinely interested in how the person is doing, beyond just small talk. Assure the team member that anything you discuss is confidential. Some may not be ready or comfortable, and that’s OK.

Dedicate time to mental health.

Try not to launch straight into your meeting agenda. Instead, start team meetings or one-on-ones by asking people to share how they’re feeling—what’s going on at home, what they’re struggling with, what’s stressing them out about work. If they’re comfortable speaking up, you’ll be in a better position to gauge how they’re doing and if there’s anything you can do to help—even if it’s just offering a bit of empathy and compassion.

Offer concrete help.

Know where to point employees who are struggling with mental health issues. Show them how to access the EAP on the company intranet, or point out helpful meditation or stress management resources. And ask the employee how you, personally, can help—taking a few tasks off their plate, allowing some time off to recharge, providing some flexibility in their schedule, initiating a short-term leave—anything you can do to help alleviate some of their burdens.

How employees can have mental health discussions with their manager.

We’ve discussed how leaders and managers can facilitate conversations about mental health. But what about employees? If you’re struggling and not sure how—or if you even should—bring it up at work, here are some tips:

  • Choose the right time and a place that is free of distractions. That way, you’ll have the full attention of your manager or HR supervisor.
  • Decide ahead of time how much you are willing to share. What you’re going through is personal, and it might not be comfortable to talk about. But if you need support at work, you may feel it’s necessary to share even minimal information to get the help you need.
  • Acknowledge that you are nervous or hesitant right up front. Conversations around mental health are still awkward for many people. But the good news is that we’re all learning together. And chances are, your manager is also nervous speaking about their mental health. But empathetic leaders want to make sure their teams are supported, and they’ll want to do what they can to help.
  • Be direct in what you need from your manager to help you with your concern. For example, if you feel you need a few days off to rest and recharge, ask for it. If you think you’ll need some flexibility in your schedule to get your kids fed, dressed, and dropped off at school before you start work, ask. This way, you’re all on the same page.
  • Sometimes your manager might not be the right person to talk with—in that situation, you may prefer to speak to an HR representative.

Supporting mental health in the workplace goes beyond offering programs and apps. To really make a difference, examine your workplace culture and how open it is to discussing and sharing mental health concerns. Leaders and managers play a crucial role in setting the tone and sending the message that our emotional wellness is just as important as our physical wellness.

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