Why is talking about mental health so difficult?

It took me ages to pluck up the courage to share my experience of burnout and everything that comes with it.

Not only was it an admission of poor mental health but it was poor mental health that was intrinsically tangled up in my world of work.

The stigma of such a label left me terrified of being seen as incompetent and unprofessional.

I had no idea how to tell my colleagues how I was feeling. Despite having a multitude of wellbeing perks available, there was no guidance on speaking up about mental health in work, nor safe space to do so. 

My repeated physical sickness was noted and empathised with yet we never once came close to starting a conversation about why it was happening nor how work was affecting my mental wellbeing. 

These were kind, educated professionals. There was no malice in their silence. They, like me, just had no idea where to start.

We all have Mental Health yet talking about it feels icky.

Talking about Mental health is still a taboo. Which is ridiculous when you consider that every single person on the planet has it.

Yes, we all have mental health! 

Mental health encompasses psychological, emotional and social well-being. It affects everything that we think, feel and do.  It’s omnipresent. It moves up and down, a continuum. No one is immune to the highs and lows it brings.

We feel free and able to talk about the highs – being happy, excited, joyful, etc –  some of us may even celebrate them (but not too much, we wouldn’t want to look smug!). But we aren’t quite so willing to talk about the lows.

And there are plenty of lows…

1 in 4 people experience them, in fact. The impact they have on the world of work cannot be ignored…

Some stats on mental health and work

57% of all absences are the results of poor mental health.
– It costs the EU 240 billion euros in lost productivity
– Globally it causes $1 trillion per year in loses
– For every 1 euro spent on mental health initiatives, the average return is 5 euro.

An ROI of 5:1, not bad, right?

Now, I don’t like to link money to mental health, but these figures are pretty enormous.

Companies spend fortunes to make efficiency savings and productivity gains but they are reluctant to invest in the mental health of their people which has a gigantic impact on both these things.

Only 44% of organisations take a strategic approach to employee wellbeing (Just 37% when you look at private sector alone) 

And I’d argue that many of the approaches aren’t really addressing the issue of burnout and mental health issues stemming from work. 

Gym membership, access to counselling services and mindfulness classes can be helpful, but if the issues are inside the organisation and people don’t feel safe to speak up about how it impacts their mental health then these are nothing more than mental wellness bandaids

How to start the conversation

We need conversations to happen if we’re going to make real changes that have any significant impact on improving mental health in the workplace. And although companies are making more efforts only 30% of managers feel able to talk about mental health with their teams.

If managers don’t feel comfortable speaking up, then the rest of the organisation is really going to struggle.

Before you begin

Let’s get clear on something before we start, you (as a manager or employer, more generally) aren’t expected to give medical advice or counsel anyone. Steer clear of trying to diagnose or label what they are experiencing.

Your role here is to create a space where people feel safe to bring mental health issues to the table and support them to take the steps needed to manage their mental wellness at work.

1) Know the signs.

In an ideal world, you’d get training to help you navigate conversations. In the interim, you can educate yourself on poor mental health issues may show up in your team.

Not everyone displays the same signs but be aware of any changes in your people.  Things like withdrawing, irritability, being emotional, exhaustion, frequent absences, dips in performance… are all indications that they may be struggling.

Awareness is always the first step.

2) Think about what you’re going to say, before you start

Action is significantly better than inaction here, so I’m not encouraging you to labour over the conversation. But giving some thought to your words before you approach the person will make it all the more comfortable for both of you.

Think about what you have noticed and when, and why it is you want to speak to them. Don’t jump to conclusions. Keep to the facts.

You can take this a step further by gathering the details of professional support services that you have available through work, or in the nearby area to help those struggling with mental health.

Having your thoughts together, even a few bullets jotted down, will help it go more smoothly. 

3) Find a quiet, private space

This might seem obvious, but in the world of open plan, glass walls and multifunctional spaces this isn’t always simple. 

Maybe a walk around the block or quiet cafe will be better if your office space tends to be busy. Or if the person is remote, then be sure to be in a quiet, calm space for the call rather than at your desk.

If it’s not possible to grab them for a quick chat then send them an invite. 

3a) Don’t worry about the timing

You may have noticed something was amiss but couldn’t speak to them in that moment. Don’t worry. Try not to leave it too long and be honest when you do finally manage talk…

Tell them that you noticed [x] on [day/s] but it was difficult to chat in that moment, or you wanted to think about what you were going to say. 

Also, it’s fine to let them know that it’s not something that you’re an expert in talking about. You don’t need to have the answers and it’s ok to be vulnerable.  It’s exactly what you will be asking them to do with you.

4) Have the chat.

Don’t jump straight in with questions but equally don’t beat around the bush. That isn’t helpful and could in fact just confuse the conversation, dilute the sentiment and result in very little. Instead…

  • Ask them how they are. 
  • Explain why you invited them there
  • Tell them what you noticed and that you care (stick to the facts)
  • Share any personal experience of poor mental wellness/times of struggle. This can really help to create a safe and trusting environment. 
  • Reassure them it is a safe and confidential space to share
  • Practice non-judgmental listening, give them time and space, allow silence.
  • Empathise but don’t pity, judge, or question what they have shared 
  • Ask them what they need and what you can do to help. 
  • Discuss options for further support from the professional services that you prepared. 
  • Agree on some next steps and to check in with them in few days time.

Finally, THANK THEM for being open to the conversation and for sharing and remind them that it is 100% confidential. 

This list is a summary and doesn’t attempt to cover all the different scenarios that could come up. But it’s a solid way to start a conversation about mental health at work.

If this has been helpful and you would like to find out how I can help you keep the conversation going and build a culture that nurtures mental health, get in touch with me on [email protected].

And if you’d like to receive more tips and tools on how to remove overwhelm and nurture mental wellness, you can sign up for my memo “Things That Help” below.