Career Advice

How to Handle Mental Health Issues In The Workplace

You may have seen the story that recently went viral about an employee who was 100 percent honest about the fact that she needed to take a couple of mental health days. It might seem like a brave thing to admit, but her CEO’s response spoke volumes about the company’s forward-thinking approach to mental health.

“I just wanted to personally thank you for sending emails like this,” the CEO wrote in an email to the employee. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organizations. You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work.”

Unfortunately, this kind of response isn’t exactly standard. Still, “this should be an example to leaders everywhere,” says Dr. Richard Shuster, psychologist and host of The Daily Helping Podcast. Not only is it good for employees to be in touch with their mental health, but it actually makes business sense, too.

“There is a large body of research that indicates when employees are happy and healthy, they are more productive,” says Dr. Shuster. “Further, an employee who receives a response like the woman in this story did is likelier to feel a stronger sense of loyalty to the organization.” Employee retention is a hot topic these days, and this is a perfect example of how companies can improve their policies to keep their talent happy and at the top of their game.

So why don’t more companies encourage mental health days, and what can you do to make them more accepted? We spoke to experts to find out.

Why We Need to Destigmatize Mental Health

Ask any mental health professional, and they’ll tell you that your mental and physical health are directly linked—yet physical ailments are much easier to talk about in the workplace. “Our society is comfortable with someone taking a sick day for being physically ill, but as a culture we still discount and minimize the importance of taking care of our emotional and mental health,” explains Jude Miller Burke, Ph.D., psychologist, leadership coach, and author of The Adversity Advantage: Turn Your Childhood Hardship Into Career and Life Success.

It’s not easy to change a work culture that’s been around pretty much forever, but it is possible—and don’t worry, it doesn’t involve spilling your most intimate secrets to your coworkers. “To destigmatize, it’s key to exorcise falsehoods about what ‘strength’ is,” says Dr. Perpetua Neo, a clinical psychologist who works with high achievers. “Instead of coping alone, not asking for help, rationalizing mental health issues away, we should emphasize and actively build stronger teams who have each others’ backs,” she says. “This is especially so for the Type A, perfectionist high-achievers who inevitably set the tone for the workplace culture given their leadership roles.” And while the road to destigmatization starts at the top, there’s something to be done at every level of a company to help bring mental health into the conversation.

What Companies Can Do

In the leadership world, you hear about company culture all the time. Establishing a forward-thinking policy on openness about mental health is a great example of what having a fantastic company culture is really about. “If the workplace culture promotes an acceptance of caring for one’s mental health as important, it reduces stigmatization and increases the likelihood that an employee who truly needs help will seek it out,” explains Dr. Shuster. “It is important for company leadership to normalize mental illness in the same manner that one does other medical conditions.” That means encouraging employees to make use of the resources available to them, whether that’s highlighting the company’s insurance coverage of mental health care, creating an open-door policy with HR to discuss how workplace stress can be lessened, or beefing up an employee assistance program.

What Managers Can Do

The key to being a great boss is first and foremost having your own act together. That why you should “start with yourself,” according to Shaun Wehle, Psy.D., a psychologist, trainer, speaker and consultant specializing in workplace wellness and work-life balance. “A major contributing factor to employee wellness is the relationship with the superior,” he says. Basically, if you want to take care of your employees and promote their well-being, you need to put yourself in a position where you are actually equipped to do so. “See a psychologist,” he recommends. You don’t have to be psychoanalyzed if you don’t want that. “There is a (not so new) trend of positive psychology that doesn’t overly pathologize and instead looks at psychological principles as a way of improving the overall quality of life. This can help in both workplace culture and the home life,” Dr. Wehle explains.

Secondly, it’s important to acknowledge that mental health issues are incredibly common. Realizing this can help prepare managers to deal with the inevitable situations that will arise with their direct reports. “In a study of 310 high achieving men and women that I just completed, 60 percent of the participants struggled with issues stemming from childhood abuse, witnessing domestic violence, chemically dependent family members, poverty, mentally ill family members, or loss,” says Dr. Smerling. “Essentially, that means over half of the employees coming into work on any given day, at all levels in an organization, are bringing a negative childhood template that may resurface as stress increases.” In other words, many people have dealt with issues in the past—or are dealing with them in the present—that can cause significant mental strain. Knowing this from the get-go can help managers feel less awkward when discussing mental health with their employees.

What Employees Can Do

First and foremost, employees often wonder what they should say if they need a mental health day. “If you know you have a boss and/or corporate structure that is receptive to the idea that a mental health day may be needed, asking for one and being open about that would be an ideal situation,” says Dr. Wehle. “I would suggest avoiding being dishonest about why you’re taking the day off,” he adds. And if your office isn’t so open about psychological struggles, “often just saying you’re taking a sick day or a personal day will not be contested,” he says.

As for bringing up overall mental health with your coworkers and superiors, you’ll have to gauge that depending on your individual professional bonds and current work culture. “Many of us would like to have an open and honest relationship with our work family,” says Dr. Wehle, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you will want to (or should) get into the nitty gritty of what you’re going through with your colleagues.

And if you have trouble wrapping your head around making mental health part of your professional well-being, think of it this way: As an employee, it’s your responsibility to do the best work you can, which means being in the right frame of mind to get the job done. For smaller issues, taking a mental health day may do the trick, but if you’re grappling with something bigger—the fallout from a death in your family, depression, divorce, or anxiety, for example—it’s a good idea to have a brief but honest conversation with your supervisor.

“If one fails to communicate with their superior that they are having mental health difficulties, it leaves their performance issues to the imagination of their boss,” explains Dr. Shuster. Again, no need to tell them all the details, but it’s smart to let them know about the issue in terms you feel comfortable with. Lastly, “it is helpful to express to your supervisor a plan of action such as seeking treatment,” he says. “This demonstrates that you plan to address it head-on so that you can continue performing at your best on the job.”


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