How to talk about mental health at work

Picture of Gin Lalli
Gin Lalli 10, November 2020

Beginning the conversation about mental health within the workplace is still difficult and often seen as taboo.

It’s not easy to open up to anyone, let alone, colleagues and managers about your own mental health, and unfortunately, it can still be seen as inappropriate to talk about depression or anxiety within work when the focus should be on sales and targets.

But things are changing.

Many workplaces are trying their best to get that conversation started, not just to be seen to be doing something but to actively support their employees. As the generations of managers and employees continue to change in the workplace then employers are having more demands for mental health support and advice placed upon them, and that’s no bad thing.

With the added pressures of the pandemic and working at home becoming normal, employers that have a comprehensive support plan are being seen as more attractive to prospective employees than large salaries and material perks.

So how are they doing it and what can you do to help bring that conversation into your workplace.

Stress is normal

Understanding that stress is a normal part of life is the first step.

We all have different levels of stress that we can take. Some stress is necessary, it helps us to meet deadlines and reach targets. This is known as challenge stress. However, once we start to feel overwhelmed with the stress, it can give rise to feelings of anxiety and helplessness, and this is known as threat stress. You literally feel threatened by the amount of stress that you are experiencing.

So some people may feel more stressed than others in the same situation. Be accommodating to that fact. However, if you feel you have a low tolerance to stress then it may be useful to address that as it’s not always the responsibility of your employer to reduce the stress. In some industries, it can be nearly impossible to reduce the natural stress that will be present.

Stress does not always stem from work.

Although the symptoms of stress may show up during work, and affect productivity, the workplace may not always be the cause of the stress.

Understanding that we are human beings with complex emotions about all aspects of our lives is crucial in creating a happy and safe workplace environment. Often something a simple as flexible working, or setting clearer boundaries between work and home life can make a huge difference to peoples mental wellbeing.

Get to know your colleagues and staff as people, try to understand the pressures they may face out of the workplace environment and is there any way that you can help them.

Understand mental health

When I present my talk, ‘How To Empty Your Stress Bucket’ to companies, the feedback I receive is that the conversation continues for many weeks and even months following it.

This is because I present the facts about mental health, in a pragmatic and scientific way. My aim is to educate, to help people understand why we feel anxious or depressed and where those feelings originate in the brain.

I also use easy to understand metaphors and this provides a little light humour around the subject so that the conversation is easy between colleagues. Who doesn’t want to talk about stress buckets and polar bears?

In my experience, mental health presentations are often far too theoretical and serious or they touch on looser terms such as mindfulness, energies and meditations which currently don’t go down too well in a corporate environment.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for all of this, and mental health is an extremely serious subject but the ice needs to be broken before we can delve deeper.

And finally, where does the responsibility lie, with the individual or the employer?

You may say that it’s collaboration, and in an ideal world, that is surely the case. However, what can we do before then?

At least taking the first step in opening up the conversation will be a start!

Gin Lalli gin@ginlalli.com

Gin Lalli is a Solution Focused Therapist specialising in anxiety, depression, stress and sleep. She is based in Edinburgh, Scotland

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