How to talk about mental health at work

Emily Addison

Wrote this on, March 14, 2023

Talking about mental health, in general, can be hard, but talking about mental health at work poses an even harder challenge for many employees.

Everyone has mental health, we are human. However, our research into mental health stigma highlighted that 45% of employees would speak to no one at work about their mental health, despite the fact the average person will spend one-third of their life at work. So why do we find it so hard to talk about?

Why is it hard to talk about mental health challenges at work?

Mental health stigma, combined with the long-standing workplace narrative of ‘leaving your personal life at the door’, causes most employees to not feel comfortable talking about the topic; whether it is their own mental health or others’.

Mental health stigma

Stigma is defined as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person”. In relation to mental health, stigma involves the social disapproval, discrediting or discrimination of individuals with mental health issues.

Mental illness has long been stigmatised in societies worldwide and although attitudes have changed since the Middle Ages when the mentally ill were imprisoned or even killed, the current population still largely fears individuals suffering from ill-mental health and ignorance is prevalent. For example, statistics show that over a third of the public thinks people with mental health issues are likely to be violent.

The effects of mental health stigma

For people with mental health conditions, the stigma they experience from the public, themselves or institutions can exacerbate the struggles they are facing and cause:

  • Reluctance to seek help and/or treatment, causing delayed or prolonged recovery
  • Increased psychological symptoms
  • More likely to experience bullying, harassment and discrimination
  • Feeling isolated and excluded, leading to further social withdrawal
  • Lack of support from friends, family and colleagues
  • Fewer opportunities for employment or social interactions
  • Low self-esteem and confidence
  • Hesitation to pursue opportunities

As you can see, the effects of stigma can negatively impact an employee at work and the likelihood of individuals wanting to discuss their mental health challenges in the workplace.

The effects of mental health stigma in the workplace

Due to the negative stigma surrounding mental health, individuals become worried about what other people will think. For example, there is the perception that mental health struggles show weakness, and therefore employees are worried about how their colleagues will view them if they talk openly. A study by McKinsey & Company found that:

  • 47% of respondents with a diagnosable mental health condition believe that their colleagues would think they are worthless if they knew about their mental illness.
  • 53% of respondents with a diagnosable mental health condition believe that their colleagues would doubt their character if they found out about their mental illness.
  • 50% of respondents with a diagnosable mental health condition believe that their colleagues would think they have little talent or skill if they knew about their mental illness.

Why is it important to talk about mental health at work?

Everyone should feel comfortable talking about mental health anywhere, whether at home or work. Whilst more people than ever are now broaching the subject in their personal lives, conversations in the workplace are falling behind.

Everyone has mental health

The first thing we have to remember when it comes to talking about mental health at work is that everyone has mental health.

At Everymind at Work, our approach to workplace wellbeing groups employees into three categories that are nicely explained by the following statistics:

  1. 100% of employees have mental health. Whilst this may seem obvious to some, unfortunately, due to the negative mental health stigma we discussed earlier in this article, many people assume that ‘mental health’ is the same as ‘mental illness’ – which is not the case. In reality, everyone has mental health, the same as they do physical health.Mental health refers to one’s mental wellbeing, which encompasses emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing factors. It determines our emotions, our thoughts and feelings, our ability to solve problems and overcome difficulties, our social connections, and our understanding of the world around us.
  2. 80% of employees have struggled with their mental health (as documented in our latest report). So, we all have mental health and it will fluctuate based on what is going on around us. However, like our physical health, many of us will experience challenges or struggles with our mental health from time to time; at least 80% of us, as found in our recent data. This means when you look at your colleagues in the workplace, many of them have struggled with their mental health and faced challenges or adversity which has affected the way they think, feel, behave, and/or interact with others.
  3. 1 in 4 adults will experience at least one diagnosable mental health problem in any given year [source]. This means that 1 in 4 adults have symptoms that meet the diagnostic criteria of a mental health disorder, which means they experience a clinically significant disturbance in their cognition, emotional regulation, or behaviour. Common diagnosable mental health conditions, for example, include anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder.

To summarise, everyone has mental health and a large proportion will struggle with their mental health at some point in their lives. Furthermore, 1 in 4 will be diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Therefore, we must normalise mental health discussions because mental health really does impact us all.

Benefits for the individual

As stated previously, it is estimated that the average person will spend one-third of their life at work, and although people try to keep their work and personal lives separate, it is just not possible! Work-related stress can filter into one’s home life and vice versa.

When we don’t talk about mental health challenges, regardless of the cause and severity, it can impact our wellbeing as seen above. However, it can also have a direct impact on our effectiveness at work.

Think about it, if you had a physical illness like a headache, you know that your concentration, motivation, energy levels, attention to detail, interaction with others, receptiveness to feedback, mood and adaptability, for example, may all be affected. You would be aware that your overall productivity and performance could be hindered. If this was continuous or happening frequently, you would inform your colleagues and managers for support and likely take some time off work to recover.

So why do we not view mental health in the same way?

These negative effects on work performance can also be experienced by an individual who has poor mental health, whether they are just having a tough time or have a diagnosable mental health condition.

That is why it is so important to be able to talk about mental health at work. First of all, it enables getting the support you need for yourself and others. But it also makes others aware of why you may not be performing as usual.

Employee rights to reasonable adjustments

The Equality Act (2010) outlines an employer’s duty to provide ‘reasonable accommodations’ (or ‘reasonable adjustments’) for employees with disabilities. According to the Act, a person is defined as disabled if they have a mental or physical impairment that has a substantial long-term (i.e. more than 12 months) effect on their normal day-to-day activities. Therefore, when an employee’s mental health is impacting their ability to complete their work as normal, they should inform their employer so that reasonable accommodations can be made. In particular, the employee needs to inform their employer of how their mental health condition impacts their work so they can mutually agree on adjustments that could help.

Some examples of typical workplace adjustments include the following:

  • Change in working hours or patterns, e.g.
    • Flexible start/finish times
    • Working from home
  • Changes to the physical environment, e.g.
    • Minimising workplace noise (maybe offering a private office, room dividers, reducing telephone ringtones, noise-cancelling headphones etc.)
    • Provide quiet break-out spaces
  • Offering support with workload, e.g.
    • Helping employees prioritise
    • Consider job sharing
  • Providing support from others, e.g.
    • Provide a mentor
    • Offer 1:1 coaching

Benefits for the business

Employers have a duty of care towards their employees, under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 to do all they reasonably can to support the health, safety, and wellbeing of their employees.

When we hear ‘duty of care’, most people think of physical health – making the work environment safe and carrying out risk assessments to prevent employees from hurting themselves at work. However, the employer’s duty of care relates to employee physical AND mental health – thus including the need to minimise the risk of work-related mental health issues as well as injury.

To fully support employees, organisations need to focus on creating an open, supportive culture where mental health is considered as important as physical health. Talking about mental health is the first step to breaking down the stigma in your organisation and being able to support employees effectively.

Moreover, research from Deloitte shows that the cost to employers of poor mental health has increased, to up to £56bn in 2020-21 compared to £45bn in 2019. These costs come mainly in the form of turnover, absence, presenteeism and burnout. Therefore, not only does ignoring mental health conversations hinder the individual’s health, it can also damage business results.

Addressing mental health and starting the conversation will benefit the business too.

How to have mental health conversations at work

Hopefully, you can now see the importance of talking about mental health at work. But how do you start such conversations, especially in workplaces where stigma is high?

The simple answer: just start talking.

For those who need a little more guidance to start talking, below we have summarised some top tips for workplace mental health conversations and provided some key resources to support you along the way.

Talking to your colleagues about mental health

Our data insights found that 45% of employees would speak to no one at work about their mental health. However, of the 55% that would speak to someone at work, they would most likely speak to their colleagues (29.44%). This is likely due to the closer, more friendship-based, relationships that are formed between colleagues as opposed to managers for example.

So how can you start mental health conversations with your colleagues?

Ask Twice

It is important to regularly check in on your colleagues to see how they are. But when you do, don’t be afraid to ask twice! This is a simple yet effective way to get honest conversations surrounding mental health started.

When we ask someone how they are, they typically respond with “I’m fine, thank you”, or “I’m good thanks”. If you ask twice, you might get a different response on the second attempt because you are signalling that you are not asking out of politeness, or as a conversation starter, you are asking because you care.

If they do open up, be ready to give them your full focus and demonstrate active listening but know that you do not have to ‘fix’ anything. Instead, be ready to signpost…

P.S. our Ask, Listen, Signpost model might be helpful here.

Be armed with signposting information

If a colleague broke their arm at work you would empathise and offer your support in helping them get to a hospital for the care they need.

Mental health should be treated the same.

If a colleague opens up that they are struggling with their mental health, you are not expected to fix them – just like you wouldn’t try to plaster or operate on their broken arm. What you need to do is listen and empathise, then offer your help in getting them the professional support they need from the relevant mental health services or registered charity.

The Everymind at Work Mental Health Support Directory is a great place to start. Having this directory to hand means you are armed with the information needed should you be in a position to signpost and support a colleague (or anyone for that matter!).

Show vulnerability yourself

When it comes to mental health conversations in general, but especially in the workplace, people are more likely to open up if you have shown vulnerability yourself.

If you start being open with your colleagues about how you are feeling (e.g. when they ask “how are you?”), it is more likely they will answer honestly in return. This does not mean you have to go into huge detail with your colleagues, but instead of answering “fine thanks” when asked how you are, displaying a little vulnerability in your answer can go a long way. For example, you could say “feeling a little tired today actually” or “I am a little overwhelmed with the workload at the moment but getting there”. This will naturally open conversation and allow others to know how you truly feel.

Due to the stigma surrounding mental health, many individuals feel alone in their experiences. However, the more we talk about the topic and share personal stories (by starting conversations), we begin to realise we are not alone and therefore people begin feeling more comfortable sharing.

Useful resources for employees

  1. Ways To Invest In Your Mental Health Poster
  2. The Everymind Champion Course
  3. The Everymind at Work Mental Health Support Directory

Talking about your own mental health to your manager

For all the reasons discussed above, it is important to talk to your line manager (or employer) about your own mental health or any diagnosed mental health problem you may have, to ensure you are supported at work. We know that having these conversations can be hard, especially when stigma is high in your workplace, so here are some tips for talking about your own mental health to your manager.

Know your rights

You should know that you do not have to disclose information about your mental health to your employer, but if it is affecting your ability to do your job, your attitude towards it, your relationship with your colleagues or any other impact to your work environment, then a conversation may be necessary.

Additionally, if your mental health problem is a disability and you want the protection of the Equality Act, your employer needs to know about it.

Plan the conversation beforehand

Going into the conversation prepared will not only ease any anxiety you experience beforehand but will likely make the conversation much more effective. Consider and plan answers for the following:

  • Think about how and when to have the conversation
  • Consider who you would like to talk to and how much information you are ready to share at this point
  • Be ready to provide examples of how your mental health is affecting you at work
  • Do you know what additional support or changes in the workplace would benefit you?

Be proactive

People often disclose mental health concerns when they are struggling, however, it is important to be proactive. If you are always open with your manager about your mental health and what is going on for you at work and at home, you are more likely to anticipate and prepare for challenges. It will also make it easier to have the harder conversations and the context is already there.

Talking to your direct reports about their mental health

People leaders have a huge role to play when it comes to normalising mental health conversations in the workplace.

Educate yourself on the basics first

As a manager, you should educate yourself on common mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Whilst this research into the prevalence of mental ill-health is outdated, statistics from 2014 found that 19.7% of people in the UK aged 16 and over showed symptoms of anxiety or depression [source]. These figures tend to increase year on year and following the pandemic, it is likely the percentage is much higher now we are in 2023. This just highlights how common mental health issues are, and when you look at your workforce, it is likely that many of them need extra support.

Think… would you know who is struggling?

By educating yourself on the signs and symptoms of common mental health problems for example and having general knowledge of wellbeing principles, you will feel more comfortable speaking about mental health to your direct reports.

Ask your employees how they are, on a scale of 1 to 10

A good way to gauge the mental health status of your direct reports is to ask them how they are feeling on a scale of 1 to 10 today. Ten being completely happy, fulfilled and satisfied, one reflecting the worst possible feeling.

Giving our mental health a number often makes it easier to understand and digest, especially if your employee finds it hard to talk about how they are feeling. It also gives you much more insight as a manager and the opportunity to ask further questions as opposed to the typical “I’m fine thanks” response when you ask someone how they are.

It is important to remember that there is no right or wrong answer as to where an individual is on the scale and it will fluctuate depending on various factors. You are not there to judge or diagnose. However, you can use this number to monitor an individual over time and work with them to improve it or see if you can help.

For example, you could ask the following questions:

  • What can you do today/tomorrow/this month/this year to improve this rating?
  • Is there anything I can do to help you improve this rating?

By using this method you are likely to spot changes in someone’s state of wellbeing quicker. It also helps build self-awareness for the individual so it’s a win-win! Most importantly, it gets the conversation started.

Give the conversation adequate thought

If you are starting a more formal discussion around mental health because you are worried about a direct report, it is important to give it more thought.

You may want to consider the following:

  • Think about the language you use. You want to make sure your language is appropriate and does not add to the negative stigma surrounding mental health. Our blog post on Why The Language We Use To Discuss Mental Health Matters can provide more advice on this.
  • Think about the location of the conversation. It is important to remember that talking about mental health can be hard for both people, so you should first ensure you are in an environment where everyone feels safe and comfortable speaking openly. Small changes, such as sitting next to your direct report instead of directly opposite them can help with mental health conversations. You may also want to consider the formality of the setting as well as the time of the conversation.
  • Ask open-ended questions. This enables you to engage in deeper discussion. For example, asking “are you having a good day?” warrants a yes/no answer; whereas “how is your day going?” may elicit a more detailed answer that you can explore further.
  • Are you ready to signpost? If your direct report discloses that they are struggling, would you know where to signpost? There are a variety of support services available externally (as listed in The Everymind at Work Mental Health Support Directory) but you should also make sure you are aware of the internal support provided by your organisation.

Being prepared for more formal mental health conversations is key to ensuring they are effective for both parties. As a manager, you can find further support on this in our public resource hub.

Useful resources for managers

  1. How To Talk About Mental Health
  2. Ask Twice Poster
  3. Crisis Intervention: How to take action when you think someone is in crisis

Further resources and support

For more guidance on how to have a mental health conversation, take a look at our blog post or download our ‘How To Talk About Mental Health’ PDF by clicking here.

We can help

Everymind at Work is on a mission to help employees feel safe to talk about mental health in the workplace.

We get people talking.

If you’re a little unsure of where to start with employee wellbeing or you would simply like to learn more about our proactive approach, you can speak with one of our wellbeing advisors just here.

You can also sign up for our monthly wellbeing webinar for HR or subscribe to our monthly resources.

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