Nearly one in five adults lives with a mental illness in the United States, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Given that roughly 60 percent of Americans aged 16 or older have jobs, it’s a fair assumption that many workers deal with mental illness.
Perhaps you’re one of them. If you are, you know that many corporate cultures are less than accommodating. Accessing counselors who are covered by insurance, paying for medication, even getting time off to deal with mental health can be a challenge for many employees. Paid sick leave isn’t available to all workers, and low-wage earners in stressful industries like food service are less likely to have access to this benefit. Even if you’re lucky enough to have paid sick time, you might think twice about using it: “mental health day” is seen as synonymous with “playing hooky” at many companies.
If you don’t have to deal with mental health challenges in your own life, take a look at those statistics again. Odds are, some of your colleagues are coping with these issues, often without much in the way of help from your employer.
But what can you do, if you’re not the CEO or business owner? Even if you don’t have the power to change policy, there are steps you can take to make your company more supportive. We reached out on social media to ask for employees’ experiences of dealing with mental health issues at work — and asked an expert for some advice on creating a mentally healthier work environment.
Let the Relationship Guide Your Behavior
“Our workplaces (for many of us) are where we spend the most time,” says Lucy Bichsel, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, speaking with PayScale via email. “Our relationships there are intimate whether we want it that way or not, so when a colleague is suffering in some way, I really feel it must be recognized.”
The best way to do that will depend on your relationship with the coworker, Bichsel says:
“If it’s a close colleague (a friend), you treat them like a friend who’s suffering: extra check-ins, lunch invites, making sure they are getting to a meeting they can’t miss, etc. If it’s a more formal relationship, it’s trickier, but I still think if your colleague is suffering from depression, substance issues, grief, etc., you can offer support in more concrete ways, like offering to temporarily help with small tasks, making sure to say hello/smile/be warm.”
Do you have a work persona — a kind of mask that you wear to the office, to conceal your true feelings and opinions? If so, you’re not alone. Many workers feel that they can’t be their authentic selves at work, whether it’s because their corporate culture is more traditional or because they personally value their privacy.
However, it’s important for workers to feel that they can be authentic at work, especially when they’re coping with mental health issues.
“I’ve had multiple patients experience very traumatic losses and a consistent theme has been that they really needed and appreciated when their losses were acknowledged by the people they worked with, especially people they weren’t particularly close with,” Bichsel says. “It normalized my clients’ situations and makes them feel they don’t have to hide their suffering/go to work with a ‘mask’ on — when this didn’t happen (people didn’t say anything), it felt incredibly invalidating and like they weren’t valued/cared about.”
However, she cautions that in cases of mental health or substance abuse issues, it’s important to wait until your coworker shares their situation before offering support. (In other words, don’t try to guess at what’s going on with your colleague, or you’ll run the risk of offending them and shutting down conversation in the future — not to mention, you might find yourself talking with HR.)
Listen, Don’t Try to Fix
“I’ve actually taken a mental health first aid training workshop, similar to CPR/First Aid training. It was interesting, and enlightening, and concerning all at the same time,” says Zanna*, a teacher in North Carolina. “The biggest thing, in my opinion, is to listen, offer support, but do not try to fix people, try to help fix problematic issues that might overwhelm them.”
She continues, “Mostly what we all need is someone to listen supportively. If you listen, and then ask practical questions that refer back to what they’ve said, like, ‘It sounds like the _______ is one of the biggest frustrations you’ve mentioned. Are there steps with it that we could adjust to make that process flow better?’”
Watch Your Language
One way you can encourage your coworkers to feel safe is by watching what you say. Many of us have fallen into the habit of casually tossing around language that’s isolating for people undergoing mental health challenges.
“Stop making fun of mental health issues. Watch your language — someone’s not ‘crazy’ for not having a slice of pie at break time, etc.,” says Robin, a public health professional, who reports that she once worked for a boss who’d describe colleagues as “being off their crazy pills.”
Take Care of Yourself
One of the best things you can do to support your coworkers is to take care of yourself. That means taking time off when you need it.
Since most companies don’t have a formal policy allowing employees to take mental health days when they need them, you may have to get creative. Best-case scenario, you’ll be able to plan regular time off. If that’s your situation, be proactive. Look at the calendar and make sure that too much time doesn’t elapse between vacation requests.
What’s too much time? That depends on your situation, personally and professionally. But one study suggests that the optimal length for vacation is between seven and 11 days long, and that workers should space their vacation time out so that they get more than one vacation a year.
In terms of emergency mental health days, of course you’d prefer not to lie to your boss (if only because you might get caught). But until the culture catches up with reality, some people told us they found these breaks absolutely necessary.
Kari, a writer and editor, says:
Before I had kids and then when they were babies and I was teaching as an adjunct English / composition professor (mostly too early in the morning or too late at night), I struggled with panic disorder and social and performance anxiety, convinced that I was constantly minutes away from a nervous / mental breakdown….
I finally confided in a tenured colleague who herself struggled with depression, and she said, “Kari, sometimes you just need to realize you need a mental health day and call in sick.” The fact that she gave me permission to do that was priceless — because I was raised to believe that I ALWAYS had to show up on time for school and for work, even when I was sick with a bad cold or allergies.
Change Policies When You Can
Finally, while you may not have the ability to change things at your company right now, there may come a time when things are different. If you should get promoted into a decision-making role, or have enough clout to pull for policy changes, consider using your power for good.
Liz, a marketing manager, suggests that companies should consider policies to support workers dealing with mental health issues and trauma:
My coworker (and work friend) sadly took his life when we were in the middle of a very stressful acquisition.
I am sure there were issues outside of work that contributed to it, but I know work was one of the factors. This was over a year ago and I still think about it often. I wonder what could have been done, if anything. I know some of my coworkers that were very close to him (went hiking and camping with him, etc.) are still very affected by it and feel as if there was something they could have done.
And what do companies do after to help employees cope with something like this? And you know how companies offer incentives to get a physical. (My last company you got 20 percent off your insurance costs from your paycheck.) Why can’t they offer incentives to get a mental check-up as well?
Some companies offer benefits aimed at supporting workers dealing with mental illness, substance abuse, grief and other trauma. In 2017, after the loss of her husband, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg spearheaded extended bereavement leave at the company. That same year, a tweet from an Olark employee went viral after she openly took a mental health day and received kudos from the CEO of her company.
When the CEO responds to your out of the office email about taking sick leave for mental health and reaffirms your decision. 💯 pic.twitter.com/6BvJVCJJFq
— madalyn (@madalynrose) June 30, 2017
Situations like these are few and far between. Companies are trying: 97 percent of large employers offer employee assistance programs, but most people don’t use them. Why? Because many employees don’t know they exist.
“Like most industries, there’s a lot of jargon floating around in human resources (HR),” writes Alia Hoyt at How Stuff Works. “As such, a lot of employees don’t really understand what EAPs are all about, which could be to their own detriment. …Today, EAPs typically deal with a much wider range of issues, including depression, stress, drug abuse, relationship problems, career issues, health and wellness, financial and legal concerns and family care (children and elders, specifically).”
Gabrielle, an HR professional, says that her employer’s EAP has been helpful to her during her struggle with depression, and adds, “…it is totally okay to see your own therapist and use EAP offered through work. I felt a little weird doing it at first, like I am double crazy. Usually the EAP person is a coworker so they have great tips and insight into the workplace culture. The more tools you can pick up to function, the better.”
And the more tools you can give your team, the better off everyone will be.
* Some names have been changed and/or last names withheld.
Tell Us What You Think
Have you ever had this experience at work? We want to hear from you. Share your story in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.