Mental Health Awareness at Work

September is Suicide Prevention Month, presenting a unique opportunity for employers to proactively prioritize the well-being of their team members. By actively supporting mental health in the workplace, organizations can foster a positive and inclusive environment that encourages open dialogue and reduces stigma. This article will explore how to recognize signs of distress and support individuals experiencing stress, anxiety, or other mental health needs.

Can You See the Signs?

Identifying signs of distress is crucial in offering timely support to those in need. Consider the following scenarios and see if you can identify flags that may indicate a person requiring support. How would you respond?

Scenario 1: Sydney, a new mom returning to work, breaks down crying over a mistake and appears exhausted.

Flags: Sydney’s emotional breakdown and exhaustion may indicate postpartum stress and challenges with work-life balance.

How to Talk About It: “Sydney, you seemed upset earlier. Is everything okay? Being a new mom and returning to work can be overwhelming. I want you to know that I’m here to support you. Let’s discuss how we can adjust your workload or provide any necessary accommodations to help you manage your responsibilities and well-being effectively.”

Scenario 2: Devon, a programmer, experiences a sudden shift in behavior, becoming irritable and overly anxious about deadlines.

Flags: Devon’s change in behavior, displaying irritability and heightened anxiety, may indicate work-related stress or burnout.

How to Talk About It: “Devon, I’ve noticed you seem more on edge lately. Is everything alright? I understand that our deadlines can be demanding, and I want to ensure you have the support you need. Let’s talk about how we can alleviate some of the pressure and help you find a healthy work-life balance. Your well-being is important to me.”

Creating a Safe Environment

There are reasons why some people are afraid to talk about their mental health. Here are some of the common concerns:

  • Fear of losing their job or missing out on a promotion,
  • Worry about being judged by their manager or coworkers,
  • Risk of being misunderstood,
  • Not wanting to be seen as getting special treatment,
  • Witnessing harassment or bullying of others who shared their own mental health concerns.

When employees feel isolated, their relationships with coworkers can suffer. By empowering them to talk about their challenges, you can help them feel supported and understood.

How would You “Hold Space” for Someone?

Holding space for someone means to be fully present and listen without judgment. While everyone will have different needs, and group dynamics vary, it’s important to show support while acknowledging feelings. Think about how you might handle each of the following scenarios.

Scenario 1: During a team meeting, an employee briefly mentions feeling stressed and overwhelmed due to personal issues. Below are three options for how to talk about it. Which would you choose?

  • Choice 1: Acknowledge their statement and briefly express empathy but move on with the meeting.
  • Choice 2:  Show empathy and offer a private conversation to discuss their concerns further.
  • Choice 3: Express empathy, thank them for sharing, and express that the company values mental health. Encourage open discussions, provide resources, and reaffirm your support.

Scenario 2: An employee shares their mental health journey with the team during a lunch break, highlighting the importance of self-care. What would be your approach?

  • Choice 1: Listen attentively and show appreciation for their vulnerability.
  • Choice 2: Listen and appreciate the employee first. Consider sharing a personal anecdote or positive coping mechanism that has helped you navigate challenges.
  • Choice 3: Besides listening and appreciating their openness, actively involve the team in discussing mental health strategies, encouraging a supportive environment where everyone feels safe sharing their experiences.

Scenario 3: A direct report discloses their struggle with anxiety to you. How would you handle the conversation?

  • Choice 1: Express empathy, provide a listening ear, and ask, “Is there something I can do to help?”
  • Choice 2: Ask if they need to adjust their workload temporarily. Ask if they’d be interested in seeking professional support.
  • Choice 3: Express empathy, validate their feelings, and collaborate on creating an action plan. Regularly check in to ensure they have access to necessary resources and support.

Initiating the Conversation

In each of these scenarios, you recognize some flags that concern you. Think about the choices presented and what you think would work best.

Scenario 1: You notice a team member displaying signs of distress, such as increased absenteeism and decreased engagement.

  • Choice 1: Schedule a private meeting to discuss their well-being and ask if they need support.
  • Choice 2: Express concern, share specific observations and inquire about potential stressors.
  • Choice 3: Demonstrate genuine care, actively listen, and ask open-ended questions to encourage them to express their feelings. Offer support and discuss potential accommodations or resources available.

Scenario 2: A direct report consistently appears overwhelmed and stressed, but they have not initiated a conversation about their mental health.

  • Choice 1: Find an opportune moment to casually check in and ask how they’re doing.
  • Choice 2: Schedule a one-on-one meeting and express genuine concern about their well-being.
  • Choice 3: Initiate a conversation in a private and non-judgmental setting. Use active listening techniques, validate their emotions, and reassure them of your support. Collaboratively explore potential solutions or resources.

Active Listening and Support

When you listen, you must give feedback, such as clarifying statements that help the speaker feel heard and acknowledged. The following two scenarios illustrate how introverts and extroverts share information differently. You’ll want to respond in a way that fits their desired style of support.

Scenario 1: An employee prefers to keep their emotions private but occasionally drops subtle hints about their mental state.

How to Talk About It: Respect their boundaries and create a safe space where they feel comfortable sharing. Regularly check in with gentle inquiries, provide resources, and encourage them to seek support at their own pace.

Scenario 2: A highly expressive team member shares their struggles openly.

How to Talk About It: Offer attentive and empathetic listening, validating their experiences. Provide reassurance, actively engage in problem-solving discussions, and connect them with relevant resources or support networks.

In all these scenarios, you will have to rely on your intuition and judgment in how you respond. What matters most is that you recognize when someone may need support, treat them respectfully, make accommodations where you can, and reach for professional assistance when needed.

Providing and Communicating Resources

  1. Typically, human resources will provide a comprehensive list of mental health resources, including employee assistance programs, counseling services, and mental health helplines.
  2. Ensure employees can access resources through various channels, such as the company intranet, newsletters, or dedicated wellness portals.
  3. Regularly communicate about available resources, emphasizing their importance and the organization’s commitment to supporting mental health.

Prioritizing Mental Health

Leaders and managers play a crucial role in fostering a safe and inclusive environment that prioritizes employees’ mental health and well-being. By recognizing signs of distress, creating a safe space for open dialogue, initiating conversations with empathy, providing active listening and support, and ensuring accessible resources, organizations can actively promote mental health awareness and offer an empathetic environment. Let’s create workplaces where mental health is prioritized, stigma is eliminated, and individuals feel empowered to seek the support they need, fostering a culture of inclusivity and wellness.




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