Let’s Talk About Mental Health at Work

employee mental health meditating

“You put a ‘Therapy’ event on your calendar?!” is often the one of the first slacks someone sends me when I join a new org. “Yup! Don’t schedule over it.” is my response.

Personally, I talk about therapy at work. Because I talk about therapy everywhere. But I didn’t always feel comfortable with that. In fact, I’ve worked at organizations where I actively tried to hide any mental health struggles because I worried about being perceived as “weak”. Not anymore though! I know through personal experience and my friends’ experiences, that talking about mental health, especially in the workplace, is absolutely a sign of strength and courage.

And since it’s 2023, and we’ve been through a LOT in the last 4 years, I think the least we can do is make it normal to talk about mental health at work. 

Here’s some ways to start…

Talking about mental health as individuals

I’m a big fan of helping folks be full humans at work, and for some that may mean talking about mental health. It. Is. Ok. To. Do. This. I promise.

Add therapy appointments to your calendar. 

Keep your non-work events on your work calendar – including therapy! This is particularly important to normalize as we move to a more hybrid- and remote-friendly working world. We must remind ourselves and our colleagues that there’s a world outside of work. For me, doctor appointments, airport pickups, early dinner reservations, and midday workouts all go on my calendar. So, why wouldn’t therapy? An added benefit is that you won’t end up double booked!

(Tip: I actually block off 15 minutes before and 30 minutes after therapy, so I don’t feel like I have to rush off to something else.)

Take sick days for more than the flu. 

Mental health is health. If you’re struggling with your mental health, you get to take sick time. We shouldn’t ask someone to work with a sore throat, and similarly we shouldn’t ask someone to work if they are having a bad anxiety day. Most workplaces do not require employees to justify taking a sick day, especially if it’s just one or two. Nonetheless, as individuals, we might put the pressure on ourselves to justify it. But enough with that. Mental health is health; if your mental health isn’t well, then you aren’t well. Take a sick day.

(Reminder: Sick days can be a precious commodity in many workplaces because the legal minimums are very low. That may mean using sick days is a privilege that not everyone has access to. If your organization does not have an inclusive and thorough paid sick leave policy, consider sending them this research by Center for American Process, and be sure to flag the section titled, “Paid sick time is good for businesses and the economy”.)

What NOT to talk about. 

Please remember to respect other folks’ boundaries as you begin to expand your own. While it may be helpful for you to talk about something you learned in therapy, it could be triggering for someone to hear about your process.

I’ll say it again and again: mental health is health. That means we can find similar analogies to help us understand these boundaries. For example, if you’re getting a colonoscopy, you might block off time on your calendar, but you likely won’t share all of the details of that process with your coworkers, right? Similarly, at work you may share that you’re in therapy or something brilliant your therapist said, but you don’t need to include all of the details.

Talking about mental health as organizations

Organizations can help reverse the taboo when it comes to talking about mental health at work by making it part of their policies and regular communication.

Provide thorough health insurance.

When you are deciding on health insurance options to provide for your team, make sure to ask what the costs will be for mental and behavioral health services. (Ideally, you want the in-network copay to be less than $30 per visit!) If your insurance doesn’t provide sufficient mental health coverage, consider adding a benefit like Lyra to help cover costs for employees seeking mental health care.

Include language about mental health in regular organizational communications.

When creating org-wide communications, mental health should not be a taboo topic. For example, during Open Enrollment, organizations usually provide updates to employees about any policy changes such as copays for primary care visits. To normalize talking about mental health in the workplace, we can also include any changes to mental health coverage in the information that we proactively communicate. Similarly, if you are reminding your team to take time off if they are not feeling well, you can explicitly include mental health as a reason to take a sick day. Small communication changes like these make it clear to employees that this is an accepted subject in your workplace.

Create and protect spaces for conversations about mental health at work.

If your organization is ready to take it a step further, you can create spaces where employees are invited to talk about mental health. Some companies create a #mental-health or #self-care slack channel where employees can go to share how they are taking care of themselves and/or ask for suggestions. If your organization hosts events like Lunch & Learns that could be an opportunity to do a deep dive on mental health. You could bring in a speaker (my dream speakers are Emily and Amelia Nagoski!) if you want to lean into the educational aspect, or facilitate an activity that allows folks to share their experiences with each other. Feel free to get creative and integrate spaces to talk about mental health in whatever way makes the most sense for your organizational culture.

What NOT to talk about.

While I am encouraging organizations to normalize talking about mental health at work, leaders and HR teams should also be very intentional about how we do it. One of the reasons that people may be hesitant to talk about mental health at work is because they worry about the stigma attached to it. They may worry that if a colleague or manager learns about their mental health, that could impact their ability to get a promotion or be considered to lead a team. If we want to make it safe to talk about mental health at work, we have to ensure that these will not be the consequences.

For example, if your organization decides to provide mental health services like Lyra, you should clearly explain what information you will get access to (e.g. you will not get personal medical information nor specific details about how they use this benefit). Similarly, if you create spaces to talk about mental health, you should explicitly inform participants that any information shared in those spaces will not be used to inform decisions related to their performance in the workplace.

(Reminder: though as leaders we want to create safe spaces to talk about mental health at work, we also need to remember that we are not certified mental health professionals. Ensuring employees feel comfortable talking about mental health is good, but forcing conversations or weaponizing mental health language is absolutely not acceptable.)

What are you waiting for?!

Let’s get started. If you’re an individual, start prioritizing taking care of yourself, and don’t feel like you need to hide that care. If you have the ability to create change at your organization, check your benefits to make sure they are inclusive and normalize talking about mental health.

Any way you decide to start is the right start. By making workplaces safer to talk about our mental health, we’re making it clear that our workplaces are communities and that we care for each other. And that will absolutely make your workplace better.

Learn more about our Author: AnnE Diemer (she/her/hers) is an HR Consultant who prioritizes the human in HR. With eight years of recruiting, DEI, and HR generalist experience across tech startups and non-profits, AnnE is dedicated to supporting organizations who are ready to take a people-centered approach to HR. At Stripe, AnnE led initiatives focused on improving candidate experience, diversifying application pipelines, building university recruiting programs, and developing leaders within the company’s employee resource groups. In 2020, she brought these skills to political non-profits where she designed programs that improved equity in hiring, promoted self-care and sustainable work, led internship programs, designed performance reviews, and facilitated connections amongst staff as they worked remotely for the first time. In her consulting practice, aedHR, AnnE approaches her work through a lens that holds contradictions: ​​How do we build great workplaces while also questioning capitalist systems? How can we work efficiently and move quickly while also prioritizing ourselves and each other as humans? When she’s not trying to answer these difficult questions, you can find her crocheting or riding her new bike around Washington, DC.

*Disclaimer: This post was not generated by A.I. It is indeed written by a real life human. A pretty cool human in fact.