Workplace

Scared to talk about mental health at work? Here's how to make it easier.

Tech leaders, HR experts and organizational psychologists share tips for how to destigmatize mental health at work.

Illustration of a heart in a head.

How to de-stigmatize mental health at work, according to experts.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

When the pandemic started, HR software startup Phenom knew that its employees were going to need mental health support. So it started offering a meditation program, as well as a counselor available for therapy sessions.

To Chief People Officer Brad Goldoor’s surprise, utilization of these benefits was very low, starting at about a 10% take rate and eventually weaning off. His diagnosis: People still aren’t fully comfortable opening up about mental health, and they’re especially not comfortable engaging with their employer on the topic.

Talking about mental health has become more commonplace among friends and family, but the reality is that it’s still a taboo topic among co-workers. And the idea of even mentioning mental health issues to a manager is still hard to swallow for many people. “Sharing that you have a mental health struggle with anybody can be difficult. Sharing it at work is absolutely terrifying,” according to Melissa Doman, an organizational psychologist and author of the book, ”Yes, You Can Talk About Mental Health at Work: Here’s Why (and How to Do it Really Well).”

Despite earnest attempts at destigmatizing mental health at work, there’s still a perception that to disclose a mental health issue to a manager is to mark yourself with a scarlet letter. Suddenly, you start receiving fewer assignments. Or people start treating you differently. According to a 2019 study from BusinessSolver, 68% of employees believe that reaching out for mental health help could negatively impact their job security. Whether or not that’s the case, the perception is there.

And rightly so, in Doman’s opinion, because mental health and mental illness has been “villainized and made scary.” “Let’s be really honest. There are some managers and companies as a whole who have zero interest, desire or willingness to discuss this,” she said.

Even though depression is the leading cause of disability in the world, it still isn’t viewed or treated the same in the workplace as any other disability, according to experts that spoke to Protocol. Here are some guidelines from tech leaders, HR experts and psychologists on how managers and decision-makers can best lead on and respond to mental health issues at work.

Preventative action is key

Sherry Walling is a clinical psychologist and the author of the book, “The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Keeping Your Shit Together.” According to Walling, companies should be taking plenty of preventative actions and early intervention before an employee gets to a point where they need to take disability leave for mental health or burnout.

These actions can be small and subtle, things as simple as starting meetings with a mini meditation or integrating gratitude practices into meetings. “It sounds really mushy,” Walling said, but research shows that these practices are hugely important in preventative mental health and contribute to things like increased productivity and improved communication.

Here’s $1,000. Spend it on mental health.

With the Great Resignation and all this attention on burnout, companies are throwing money at more — and cleverer — mental health benefits to keep their employees happy and, more importantly, keep them period.

At TaskRabbit, employee benefits include access to two mental health apps: Ginger, a mental health therapy counseling tool, and Headspace, for meditation. Still, CEO Ania Smith told Protocol she doesn’t think “they’re the whole solution.”

About a third of TaskRabbit employees have signed up for Ginger, and 65% of employees who signed up are active users, according to a TaskRabbit spokesperson.

According to Smith, what matters more is working with individual employees directly on finding ways to respond to their mental health needs, whether it’s “incremental time off, changing and working on a different project, changing their manager or their team or doing something completely differently.”

“Having multiple ways to respond to people when they’re definitely hurting is really important,” Smith said.

One of the more novel solutions: giving every employee $1,000 to spend on mental health. That’s what Phenom’s Goldoor did after seeing the low utilization rates of the company’s other mental health benefits. Employees can spend that $1,000 on anything directly related to mental health, including therapy and meditation courses, starting Feb. 1.

There is no “generic mental health solution,” and well-being-related benefits need to be personalized, so Goldoor felt it best to give employees more control over deciding what kind of mental health support they need.

Companies are also beginning to be more explicit about encouraging employees to take sick days for mental health. “If you’re just not having a good mental health day, why should that be any different than someone who’s caught a cold?” said Doman, who thinks that companies should be explicit about communicating to employees that it’s okay to take a sick day for mental health reasons.

Red flags

How do you know if the organization you’re working for has a supportive culture around mental health? Observe your environment before you leap into candid conversations, recommended Doman. Is mental health talked about openly at your company? Or is the culture, “Just put up and shut up?” Does the organization encourage stoicism and participate in “well-being shaming?”.

Experts say it starts with leadership. “This is something we have to start talking about from the top down,” according to Scott Domann, chief people officer at Calm.

“There have been times where I’ve struggled personally with my mental health and shared that it’s okay to not be okay,” Goldoor said. Once, at an all-hands, he shared that he was struggling with his own mental health and that he was taking some personal time to go on a three-day meditation retreat. When employees at Phenom heard that from the company’s chief people officer, it made it easier for them to open up themselves.

Domann compared the fear of talking about mental health to the fear that many companies used to have around talking about DEI issues. Although he doesn’t feel like the stigma is completely gone, the key to getting there is “the removal of shame” in talking about these issues.

In terms of what to say, Walling suggests managers don’t make any commitments right away when an employee comes to them with a mental health concern and accommodation request. Simply thank them for sharing and take some time to consider what you’re able to feasibly promise. “The most important part is empathy, the act of listening and the sense in which you’re offering support without making promises that you can’t keep or overcommitting,” Walling said.

What’s equally important but perhaps less obvious is the importance of not responding with advice. If someone tells you they are struggling with depression, don’t tell them to exercise, Walling said. “That is the worst thing that you can do,” because people don’t choose to be depressed and anxious, and giving unsolicited advice could strike the wrong tone.

What’s the bar for disclosure?

We all have off days, but what’s the bar for telling your manager or company about a mental health condition? Walling thinks it’s when you are consistently failing to deliver for weeks on end.

In Doman’s view, you don’t have to have a clinical condition to open up at work about mental health struggles. Mental health also includes “having regular negative transient reactions to everyday life events.”

In terms of accommodations, Walling recommends employees be as direct and specific as possible, as well as to enter the conversation with a sense of what the ask would be. For example, if you’re experiencing significant depression and sleeping longer, or just finding it harder to get going in the morning, maybe it’s asking for a two-hour delay in the start of work for a period of four weeks. If you’re struggling with a mental health concern but aren’t sure what kinds of accommodations would be helpful, she recommends asking a physician or therapist.

Walling has also worked with clients who’ve had PTSD or trauma-related distress for whom it was helpful to have a spot in the office without a lot of traffic behind them. For patients with attention-deficit issues, having Slack or other potential distractors and notifications turned off during certain working hours is helpful in redirecting their attention.

For businesses, the benefits of having an open and inclusive culture around mental health are obvious. The ROI case is clear, what with retention and burnout high on the minds of tech executives everywhere. “Workers will show you how they feel by leaving with their feet,” Doman said.

Correspondingly, she added, “Any manager that is not incorporating how to have mental health conversations at work is already behind.”

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