how to respectfully address mental health in the workplace

In any given year, approximately 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental health issue. Mental illness isn’t discriminating, affecting people of all ages, sexes, backgrounds, education levels, socioeconomic circumstances and employment levels. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), depression and anxiety are the most common mental illnesses diagnosed in Canada, with approximately 8% of Canadians experiencing a major depression throughout their life and 5% of Canadians living with some form of anxiety.

Many people deal with mental health challenges while holding down full-time jobs. Statistically speaking, it’s likely that someone in your workplace is dealing with a mental health issue right now, whether you’re aware of it or not. By the age of 40, approximately 50% of Canadians will have experienced some form of mental illness. Mental health issues cost $50 billion in lost productivity and healthcare costs each year. Is your organization providing a safe, welcoming space to address mental health? If not, it’s never too late. Below are ways to make your workplace a safe space to discuss mental health.

addressing mental health at work

open the dialog early

Broaching an unknown subject is difficult, especially when it’s a topic as loaded as mental health. Don’t leave your employees in the dark about what they should do if they’re experiencing a mental health issue. The worst thing you can do is wait until an employee is in the midst of a full blown breakdown to share information about your mental health policies. Regularly send communications to employees about mental health initiatives and resources you offer. Ensure employees are informed before they need to tap into your mental health resources. Make discussing your mental health policies and resources part of your onboarding process for new employees. Be proactive rather than reactive. Start the conversation now, and make it ‘okay’ to talk about mental health at work.

don’t make mental health shameful

Hiding mental health struggles is extremely common, especially in the workplace. Though society has made strides to reduce the stigma around mental health, it’s still an issue that carries a lot of shame for many Canadians. Ensure you treat employees who suffer from mental health issues the same as you would any sick employee. Mental health doesn’t define someone. They’re a person beyond their illness, and it’s not something they can just ‘fix’. You wouldn’t tell an employee with a cold to ‘toughen up,’ or decide they’re incapable of doing their job because of their illness. Mental health is the same. Employees who deal with mental health issues have an illness that needs to be treated, whether that’s with medication, therapy or some other form of healthcare. Also, avoid terminology that implies someone’s illness is not ‘real’ because you can’t see physical symptoms. You don’t necessarily know what’s happening inside someone’s head.

provide tools and resources

Mental health issues are not something the average person is equipped to deal with on their own. Mental health resources provide guidance and a professional channel for employees to turn to when they’re feeling overwhelmed or unsure. Mental health can be a very touchy subject, and providing employees with resources or person to turn to who isn’t their manager can make it easier to broach the subject. Some tools and resources that are helpful include:

  • a designated (and trained) point of contact on the HR team for mental health concerns
  • training sessions about mental health and work-life balance for employees
  • including information about mental health in your onboarding process for new employees
  • proving information about recognizing mental health issues and maintaining good mental health
  • regular communications about mental health policies and resources available in your workplace
  • a channel to speak with a neutral third party mental health professional

listen without judgment

Often employees are afraid to come forward and admit they need help handling their mental health struggles because of how employers treat those who do. People who are dealing with mental health struggles are often told to ‘suck it up’ or ‘push through’. Because mental health struggles often have no outward signs, it can be more difficult for managers to empathize like they would with someone who has a physical illness. However, mental health illnesses are ailments too, and need to be treated as such. Train managers and leaders to listen calmly, and avoid making assumptions (like that the issue is ‘all in their head’) or offering platitudes (‘you’ll get through this!’) and instead focus on open communication and providing support.

prioritize work-life balance

45% of Canadians say the greatest cause of stress in their life is their work or job. Often that’s due to unrealistic expectations placed on workers. Most jobs come with some elements of stress, and that’s normal. Acing an important presentation or meeting a tight deadline can be stressful, but those little stresses are normal and healthy. A problem arises when stress is constant and unrelenting.  Employees shouldn’t be ‘on the clock’ or thinking about work at all times. People need mental breaks to refresh and recalibrate. Reasonable hours are important. Taking vacation is important. Having a healthy balance between work and home is important. Do you make it easy for employees to step back and take mental breaks when they need to refresh?

focus on healthy leadership

Unhealthy work cultures can contribute to or exacerbate mental health issues. The authoritative, strictly top-down model of management is a prime example of this. Confident managers don’t need be dictators to be respected. There’s a big difference between leading and demanding. Carefully vet your managers, and promote people who understand that the role of a leader is to provide support and direction so that their employees thrive. Look for traits like empathy, honesty, confidence and communication when choosing leaders. Managers who belittle, bark directions or tear down employees will only hurt your organization and the well-being of your employees.

train your leaders

Few people are born knowing exactly how to handle difficult situations. That’s why training is so important. Empathy and strong intuition are important traits to look for in leaders, but these skills can be enhanced with training and development. Mental health can be a touchy subject to tackle, particularly in the workplace, so it’s important that leaders, especially those who are responsible for managing other employees, are given guidance about discussing mental health in a sensitive and respectful manner. If an employee comes to their manager with a difficult situation, it’s important that they have the tools and vocabulary to discuss the situation. You also want employees to feel at ease approaching their leaders with important issues. Providing mental health training will make that dialogue more comfortable for everyone.

involve employees in decision making

Some workplaces have a bad habit of making unilateral decisions that affect employees without consulting them. These sudden seismic shifts can throw employees off balance and make their workplace feel outside of their control and ramp up stress and resentment. While it’s understandable that leaders need to make decisions to help their organization evolve, it’s also important to talk to employees and understand their perspective before making sweeping changes. Employees who are on the front lines, running day-to-day business operations will have a very different perspective than executives. While it’s impossible to include every single employee in decision-making, opening a dialogue so those who have strong opinions can weigh in is important. Tap into diverse perspectives from people at different levels of experience, with different backgrounds and demographics. Ask questions. Allow for anonymous feedback. Listen to what everyone has to say. You might not be able to make every person happy, but listening to feedback and hearing multiple perspectives can dramatically impact decision-making and build a more democratic, harmonious workplace.

stay in the loop with workplace insights from our HR experts.

subscribe to our newsletter