One in five adults experience mental illness at some point in their lifetime with women being the most affected, but discussions about mental health have only become mainstream in recent years. Now, social media users, celebrities and politicians are prompting dialogues about mental health on public forums. But in a lot of environments, especially the workplace, mental illness is still taboo.
While mental health issues are common, 52 percent of adults feel that their organization does not adequately support mental health needs. We spend one third of our time at work. If an organization doesn’t have supports in place for mental health issues, affected employees are spending one third of their time feeling unsupported, stressed and helpless.
Given the sensitive and complex nature of the topic, it can feel impossible to get your organization on the right track. Fortunately, there are a few actions you can take as an employee to advocate for people with mental illness. The first step is to have an open dialogue with your employer about mental health and the importance of creating a healthier work environment for employees. Here are a few things you should mention to ensure progress:
1. Show them the numbers
When higher-ups handle mental illness poorly, it’s usually because they are ignorant about the topic. The best way to convince your employer that investing in the mental health of employees is worthwhile is to hit them with facts.
When you bring the issue to your employer, come prepared with articles and statistics from trusted sources like the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) or Psychology Today that demonstrate how many people are affected by mental health conditions and the negative consequences it can have in the workplace. For instance, it is useful for your employee to know that mental health conditions can negatively impact employees performance and that organizations that prioritize the mental health of employees tend to be more successful.
If the nation-wide stats aren’t convincing enough, you can propose an anonymous, organization-wide survey. Once your employer sees how many of their employees struggle with mental health conditions, they will be more inclined to take action.
2. Make mental health a priority
Once your employer understands that investing in employee mental health is critical, it’s time to create processes and resources for affected employees. Work environments can positively and negatively affect people’s mental health. For instance, a lack of flexibility and freedom can make people feel stifled and social turmoil in the office can induce stress.
Studies show that organizations that make the health of their employees a priority perform better overall. A lot of organizations have successfully incorporated mental health awareness and support into daily operations through educational opportunities and accessible resources like:
- Organization-wide educational campaigns to raise awareness and reduce stigma about mental illness
- Comprehensive trainings that inform managers on how to identify and address mental health issues among employers
- Health workshops and clinics for employees that suggest ways they can improve symptoms of mental illness
- Improvements to workplace culture such as allowing more PTO and flexible hours and making efforts to reduce workplace discrimination and harassment.
All of these efforts can be effective, but the best thing your organization can do is support employees’ efforts to get help. Talk to your employer about the possibility of allowing employees to take an hour out of their workday to see a therapist and get evaluated. Professional treatment can help employees get back on track and feel supported outside of the office.
3. Stand up for employees with mental illness
People with mental health issues fear becoming unemployed if they reveal that their illness is interfering with their productivity. Unfortunately, that fear is not unfounded. While it is illegal for an employer to fire an employee or force them to retire because of a mental health issue, it still happens.
When people are struggling emotionally and mentally, they invest a lot of energy into getting through the day. Seemingly small tasks become difficult and social interactions are draining. As a result, if someone is confronted about their declining work performance they’ll probably struggle to stand up for themselves. If you work closely with an employee that’s experiencing a mental burnout, you can stand in as an advocate.
When you talk to your employer, explain that, just like other illnesses, the symptoms of mental health conditions are largely out of people’s control. What affected employees can do, however, is seek treatment.
Healthy employees perform well so if the employee is seeing a therapist and/or taking other steps to improve their health, it’s important that your employer view their efforts as an investment in their performance and the organization. Additionally, encourage your employer to view people’s time at the organization on a larger scale. It can be easy for employers to harp on slip-ups and mistakes, but even the best employees have rough patches. Highlight all of the fantastic contributions the employee has made over the years so that your employer can have confidence in their ability to make a comeback and perform well.
While bringing these issues to your higher-ups may seem daunting, you have to remember that even the people with big titles desire a healthy and productive workforce. Of course, we don’t expect anyone to accomplish all of these things on their own. But hopefully, this post gives you a few ideas about how to push your organization to prioritize mental wellness and therefore create a healthier environment for all employees.
Due to HIPPA and confidentiality you don’t know who really has a mental health issue in your work place. I remember a volunteer was hired and they put in in a cubical, in a corner, located by file cabinets, away from everyone. She was never introduced to the group. I had to go into her space to get to the files. She turned around, nervously looking at me the complete 5 minutes I was there. I apologize if I scared her (she had a scare look on her face). I had to go back to the files and return what I had taken. I didn’t want to scarce her again, so I talked to her and told her what I was doing. She still showed signs of nervousness. I finally asked a co-worker if there was something wrong with her. She told me she was from an agency working with people with disabilities. If the manager had just introduced her to us from the very beginning, I feel she would have been comfortable around us. She did not last long in our group (about 2 weeks).