We need to care more about mental health in the workplace

26 August, 2019

When a work culture supports mental well-being, employees can tap into their full potential and contribute effectively

Demanding workloads, high performance expectations, challenges with attaining work life balance, unhealthy lifestyles and the pressure of being constantly connected is leading to a significant uptick in psychological distress. Mental health issues have reached an alarming proportion in the corporate world. The numbers speak for themselves:

  • 42.5 percent of employees in the Indian private sector suffer from anxiety or depression
  • Two out of three workers in the UK have experienced mental health problems
  • 44 million Americans grapple with mental health issues in any given year

So, this week, my message focuses on how to handle mental health challenges at the workplace. What can we do to support our co-workers’ mental well-being – whether as leaders, or as an organisation? 

Research shows that ongoing mental health problems undermine engagement and performance at work, holding people back from achieving their full potential. The impact extends from the individual to the organisation.

When people’s mental and emotional well-being is side-lined, the company pays a heavy price in the form of sick days, lost productivity and turnover costs.

In the Harvard Business Review article, We Need to Talk More About Mental Health at Work, Morra Aarons-Mele highlights the costs in an American context: 

$17-$44 billion is lost to depression each year, whereas $4 is returned to the economy for every $1 spent caring for people with mental health issues.

This pattern repeats itself across countries: the WHO has found that, without improved treatment, the world will lose 12 billion workdays by 2030 due to depression and anxiety. In other words, an inability to handle mental health problems at the workplace impacts the bottom line significantly.

At the same time, it’s crucial for companies to realise that with the right organisational support, employees with mental health challenges can be highly productive and effective. In fact, they bring their own unique talents to the table – which resonates with our “Whole Self” people philosophy. In the article mentioned above, Aarons-Mele elaborates:

Understanding your psyche can be the key to unleashing your strengths — whether it’s using your sensitivity to empathize with clients, your anxiety to be a more thoughtful boss, or your need for space to forge new and interesting paths. When we acknowledge our mental health, we get to know ourselves better, and are more authentic people, employees, and leaders… [which] leads to better performance, engagement, employee retention, and overall wellbeing.

The role of leadership

Mental health disorders don’t appear overnight. They come about gradually, which is why it can take years for people to recognise the problem and seek help. Whether you realise it or not, at least one of your team members could be living with a mental health disorder right now. Keep in mind that no one is immune, be it a young newcomer or a senior leader.

Here are four ways in which we can support better mental health at the workplace:

1. Break the silence

Despite growing awareness, the stigma around mental health remains deeply entrenched. This is the biggest reason why people hide their struggle and fail to ask for help, fearing it would be seen as a sign of weakness and affect their career. In Mental Health and the Workplace, Neerja Deodhar shows how professionals feel compelled to lie in an environment that trivialises mental health concerns:

Their attempts to seek medical help had to either be couched in euphemistic terms (being sick with “viral fever” instead of anxiety) or kept hidden.

Leaders must step up and start creating safe spaces for employees to open up. Normalise discussions around mental health, letting your team members see that you don’t attach any shame or secrecy to the subject. If you feel comfortable sharing a personal story, go ahead – that can go a long way towards breaking the taboo. Leaders who embrace their vulnerabilities inspire their team members to do the same.

2. Spot the signals

In order to support our co-workers better, we need to recognise the signs of common mental health issues like anxiety or depression:

  • Intense mood swings, irritability, restlessness
  • Excessive conflicts or negative opinions
  • Continuous fatigue, lack of energy
  • Procrastination, inability to focus
  • Frequent absenteeism
  • Lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Disrupted eating/sleeping patterns
  • Increased reliance on alcohol or tobacco
  • Loss of self-confidence and self-esteem

3. Broach the topic

Let’s say you notice a number of depressive signs in a team member. As a manager, it’s up to you to bring up the concern – but without jumping to conclusions. Remember, erratic behaviour can be caused by various factors, like a family member’s illness or problems with a co-worker. In her Harvard Business Review article, When You’re Worried About a Colleague’s Mental Health, Amy Gallo offers great advice:

If you decide to broach the subject, don’t come out and ask, “Are you depressed? Are you having some mental health problems?” The individual may not be ready or willing to talk about it. Instead, focus on the work and the impact his behavior is having on you and others. Make an observation like, “We’ve been trying to get this project done and it’s been hard with you out of the office.” Then, “give the person the opportunity to respond and share with you what’s going on.” 

If a co-worker opens up about their mental health, the most helpful thing you can do is listen to them, without judgment or advice. However, your role isn’t to be an amateur therapist or “fix” the problem. If your team member needs serious help, guide them to a professional and create a supportive, flexible environment for them at the workplace.

4. Foster trust

Get proactive by building a culture of trust and caring within your team. A toxic office environment often exacerbates anxiety and depression, whereas when employees feel valued and safe, their mental health improves dramatically. According to one study, companies that foster trust experience 74 percent less stress, 106 percent more energy, 40 percent less burnout and 13 percent fewer sick days – adding up to 50 percent more productivity!

Part of a caring culture involves making space for your team members to take rejuvenating breaks during the workday, which helps them manage stress. Create and encourage opportunities for mindfulness and renewal, be it a walk in the nearby park or a quick meditation at your desk. It’s also important to walk the talk by role-modelling these self-care behaviours for your team.

Policy perspective

Zooming out to the organisational level, here are three ideas for us to consider:

1. Start the conversation

In Mental Health and the Workplace, mentioned above, psychologist Sonali Gupta advises companies to proactively build a narrative of mental health at the workplace:

“They should organise sessions and workshops by therapists which deal with emotional self care. I have seen that people benefit immensely by attending such workshops because they realise that mental health can be spoken about, and that they are not the only people who may be facing these issues,” she explains. 

Some companies have comprehensive mental health initiatives. The programmes include talk sessions with senior company sponsors, having mental health professionals on hand, as well as an employee assistance hotline that provides confidential support. At Godrej too, we have started introducing initiatives around this.

2. Create allies

In What Companies Can Do to Help Employees Address Mental Health Issues, Barbara Harvey describes Accenture’s process for training allies who can offer mental health support to their co-workers:

Our Mental Health Allies program includes both classroom-based and online training. In the UK alone, we have trained more than 1,700 employees — some 15% of Accenture’s UK workforce — to be “allies”: colleagues others can approach in the knowledge that their discussion will be kept completely confidential. Each ally first took a short online course and then participated in a half-day classroom-based training session to increase his or her understanding of mental health challenges while building the confidence and skills to address common issues through role playing and scenario training.

3. Communicate clearly

Be it the company’s existing mental health policy or new provisions, it’s important to communicate it in a way that limits ambiguity. In How We Rewrote Our Company’s Mental Health Policy, Kelsey Mayer explains:

Don’t risk your employees misunderstanding specific policy benefits or accommodations by rolling out your new plan in an email. Create an event or host a workshop around it to clarify exactly what this policy means for each team member and how it came to be.

Mayer recommends a two-phase rollout. First, train the leadership and make sure managers understand the policy and their role in implementing it. Then, introduce it to everyone else, ideally supported by workshops, training sessions and discussion forums.


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