Importance of Open Conversations About Mental Health in the Workplace

Mental health is not an easy subject to talk about as it usually comes with a negative social stigma. From an organisational perspective, not giving heed to employees’ mental health can be very costly. The first step is for employers to acknowledge how widespread mental health problems are, even in the workplace.

Sometimes when we talk about health, we forget that it is not about blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol levels, and the likes. Mental health is equally important, but there is not enough awareness and open conversations surrounding the topic. Far too often, such discussions are considered sensitive or even taboo in some societies, and the traditional stigma is that it is often seen as abnormal.

It is not an easy subject to talk about at home or work; therefore, we overlook individuals’ mental health issues. Despite having plenty of treatments available, primarily due to fear of stigma, nearly two-thirds of affected people refuse to seek help from a professional.

The world is trying to increase the awareness of mental health, as, over the past two decades, suicide rates have risen, with the pandemic accelerating the already dire crisis. Abrupt changes to lifestyle, blurring of boundaries between private and professional life, society expectations, burnout from work, social isolation, and fear of financial security could result in employees’ increased tendency to experience depression and anxiety-related behaviours.

From an organisational perspective, not giving heed to employees mental health can be very costly. Many employers are still unaware of how widespread mental health problems are, even in the workplace. Others may be aware, but the common obstacle is that they do not know how to deal with such issues. The impact on employee’s mental health varies based on their working environment and occupational role.

Workplace culture plays a crucial role — there must be constant communication between employers and employees. Employers must also be able to recognise signs of employee burnout, such as:

  • Withdrawing from other people
  • Irregular eating patterns
  • Irregular sleeping habits
  • Inability to enjoy activities that previously seemed to be enjoyable
  • Decreased work productivity, motivation level and focus
  • Heightened physiological anxiety
  • Difficulties in making decisions or finding solutions to problems
  • Significant changes in mood, energy or eating habits
  • Substance abuse

In the graph by WHO Health Workplace, we see how a cycle of positive employee well-being increases work productivity and benefits the business as a whole — imagine a brainstorming session with a team full of energy and inspiration.

There is a need for two-way symmetrical communication in the workplace. The aim is to educate on workplace well-being and mental health, provide knowledge on the issues, deal with burnout and anxiety, encourage and improve willingness and comfort to have open conversations about such topics.

Avoid making assumptions and keep yourself updated with accurate information. Companies should prioritise employee well-being, and the first step is to acknowledge it is crucial, and there is a need to create a safe space for employees to have open conversations.

However, just acknowledgement is not enough. Actions are needed — have regular check-ins with employees in person or online, and hold meaningful conversations instead of surface questions.

Employers can loop in employees in preparing post-pandemic business plans, giving them a sense of control, help foster positivity, and reinforcing team cohesion. Employers should also provide clear and transparent information to employees to reduce the fear of the unknown.

Organisations need to cultivate a workplace with zero tolerance for discrimination to prevent stigma, protect employees and promote well-being in the workplace.

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