5 Tips for Talking About Your Mental Health at Work
The stigma around talking about mental health at work has reduced, but it's still a difficult topic
Psychologist Melissa Doman M.A offers her five tips to having that difficult conversation at work
If you are experiencing stress and burnout as a result of work, we have therapists who can help – find yours here
We don’t often pause to think about the fact that mental health, stress, and mental illness can mean different things to different people. Why? Because that’s not something that we’ve all been taught to do, and that’s ok.
The generations that came before us, and even many of the current generation, are still learning about this. How? Because of the willingness and bravery of many people to talk about it, and the realisation that not talking about it was unsustainable.
The meanings and beliefs about the concepts above which people hold come to fruition from a variety of factors. How one was raised, cultural background, previous experiences of sharing around mental health, the county they live in, and many additional reasons.
Despite our differences, what we do have in common is this: the human need to feel heard, understood, and accepted…even at work. Or rather, especially at work. While there are a lot of factors that go into this statement I just said (e.g., industry, specific organisation, cultural nuances), it doesn’t make it any less true.
Why this is a crucial discussion
I’ve said it 4,568 times and I’ll say it again here: the brain is an organ, like any other organ in the body.
As such, that organ has a healthy state, stress state, and illness state. The brain deserves the same social acceptance, understanding and care that would be afforded to any other organ that is stressed or ill. The complication? Some people are hesitant to discuss that organ, especially at work, because that organ governs who they are, their personality, how they view themselves, the world, their environment, and how they interact with others.
That alone makes the case for why we should, must, and need to talk about mental health at work. Our brains provide the amazing foundation and building blocks of who we are, and to think this should be ‘left out of the workplace’ is thankfully a sentiment that’s becoming a thought of the past. Slowly, but surely.
I want to be quite clear: the mental health at work conversation goes two ways. The person who is the supporter, and the person who is the sharer.
How you share matters
While there is a lot of discussion around the best ways to support someone around mental health at work, it’s equally important that people speak up about their own mental health in a constructive way. The main reasons? To accurately communicate what your needs are, describe your experiences, and where you’d like things to go after the conversation to name just a few. While there are many ways to talk about your mental health at work, here are five tips I’d like to share with you from my upcoming book:
1. Be very honest with yourself – are you ready to talk about this at work?
If you feel ready to talk about your mental health at work, fantastic! You’re about to take a massive step to help normalise this discussion at work. However, while being action-orientated is great around this topic, I want to make it crystal clear that if you’re experiencing chronic stress, emotional upset, or a mental health condition, you don’t have to tell people at work.
You are under no obligation to share this information, regardless of whether you are keen to progress the mental health conversation at work. That information is your information, and you can choose whether or not to share it. You aren’t doing something wrong if you choose to keep it to yourself. Perhaps you’re going through a rough time and do want to share with your colleagues or boss, but don’t have the words yet – that’s ok too. There are many people who want to talk about their mental health, but can’t organise their thoughts yet or may just need a more time. Try to find a balance: while you don’t need to rush this process, don’t be afraid to give yourself a little nudge out of the nest. Consider asking yourself the following questions to help you assess your readiness & motivation:
- Why do you want to share about your mental health at work?
- What will it change for you at work by sharing this information?
- What do you want to get out of these conversations specifically?
2. Be mindful about who you choose to share with and why
Be intentional about who you who want to share with and think about why you’ve chosen that person(s). Don’t just share with anyone who will listen.
Do you want to speak with a team member? Your boss? Your whole team? Whether you want to share with an individual, with your team, or in the company newsletter is up to you. You need to consider why you’re choosing that person, the desired outcome you want, and the approach you will take. This conversation may look different with different people. You may have a more casual approach with your peer whereas you may be more formal with your boss (depending on the rapport you have). Some things to consider:
- How would this person best “receive” what you want to tell them? Are they fact-based? Empathetic and respond to emotion-based words? Do they prefer email or phone to chat?
- Within the context of the workplace relationship with this person, how can you describe to them why you chose them to speak to?
- If you want to share with your boss, what do you want to come out of that conversation?
3. If you want to be heard, get on the radar
Don’t rely on signals or hints to let someone know you want to talk or need help.
Not everyone is good at picking up on subtle clues, especially in an increasingly remote-working world. Additionally, if you work in a company where the culture is people being wary of “overstepping” into colleagues’ personal lives, to expect them to know what’s going on for your mental health without clear signposting is an unrealistic expectation. When it comes to matters of the mind, be explicitly clear that you want to talk or need support. Think of all the stuff your colleague or boss has going on – their personal life, the 463 emails they receive every day, the pressure they receive from their boss, and the other team members they manage. They’re also supposed to pick up on subtle cues from you on wanting to discuss your emotional distress or that you’re not sleeping because of the 30% increase in your workload? Come on now.
Use your words and create space to say them by reaching out. Here’s what this could sound like: “I know you’re really busy at the moment, but I need to have a quick catch up with you. Do you have 30 minutes later today to chat?”
4. Highlight your goal
Be clear on why you’re raising this with someone, what you need, and what you don’t need. Be clear on your purpose and what you’re hoping to accomplish by sharing this information with this person. Here’s a few examples of what this could sound like:
“I’m telling you about this because I know I’ve been acting differently recently at work. I wanted you to hear directly from me about why I’ve been acting like this, so you didn’t assume the wrong thing. And I wanted to mention a few things that would be super helpful for whenever we check in. Can I explain them?”
“I’m feeling really overwhelmed. I don’t want anything in particular; I‘d just really appreciate if you could listen to me word-vomit what’s been going on – is that ok?”
5. Explain any concerns you have about opening up
This will give you an opportunity to mention any concerns to the person and give them the opportunity to allay your fears.
Make sure to use “I” statements and be specifically clear about your concern. Connect the “I” statement to the actual fear itself, or the outcome you’re worried about. This might be, “I’m worried you’ll judge me”, or “I don’t want you to see me differently”. Hearing from the person that they won’t see you differently, and when they mean it, is more comforting that we realise. So many people get stuck in their own head and perpetuate their fears and don’t reality check these fears with those around them.
Take the time for this step – divulge the fears – give the person the opportunity to put your mind at ease.
Please remember, learning to talk about your mental health specifically at work is a skill set like any other. No matter where you are in that journey, be kind to yourself as you find your way. You wouldn’t be expected to be an expert at something overnight, so this shouldn’t be any different. Be patient with yourself. Start with one small step. One conversation. One moment. Think ripple effect. That’s the goal.
My biggest hope for you is this: that you’ll feel as though you can talk about your mental health at work in a constructive way. And, that you’ll inspire others too as well.
If you’d like to take a deeper dive into the above, I truly hope you’ll read my book to learn about how we got to where we are now, the barriers that still exist, and how to have the conversation in a constructive and practical way.
Thank you for doing your part to help shift the narrative around mental health at work. I’m excited for the impact you’ll have.
Melissa Doman, M.A. is an organisational psychologist, former clinical mental health therapist, and author of Yes, You Can Talk About Mental Health at Work…Here’s Why (And How to Do it Really Well)