The value of being open about mental health in the workplace

Oct 23, 2019

Managers, bosses and business owners would benefit from encouraging open discussion about mental health at work to help reduce stigma in the workplace.

The average person spends around 90,000 hours at work over the course of their lifetime. That’s roughly a third of their life so it’s no question that looking after yourself at work should be priority. Unfortunately, sometimes work can get on top of you. You might find yourself working excessive hours, becoming dissatisfied with your job and developing high stress levels. 

Managers and senior leaders can sometimes be forgotten in this discussion, however they can be just as susceptible to poor mental health. It’s important that managers and leaders also feel comfortable to put up their hand if they need help, and that can also set a great example for staff. 

A recent article in The Age detailed how law firm executive Dean Cartwright had always followed the mantra that “when the going gets tough, work harder”. Yet shortly before his 50th birthday, the father of two found himself crying during his morning commute and at his desk. 

“I just felt this infinite sadness,” he says. 

After taking 10 weeks leave and seeking help, Cartwright was back at work. He highlighted the importance of support from his colleagues and his boss, who encouraged Cartwright to take as long as he needed before returning. 

RUOK? CEO Katherine Newton, also featured in the article, discussed how sharing mental health challenges at work can also help fight stigma.  

“If leaders lead by example, leaders will start to normalise these life ups and downs and these challenges, so then collectively we can shift that stigma dial even more,” she says. “Stuff happens, life happens and just because we turn up at the office, it doesn’t mean life switches off.”

This is the type of attitudinal shift required across other industries, not just the corporate sector. It’s applicable to all professions – whether you’re in a classroom, on a building site or in the corner office of a high-rise.

If managers are open about how they’re feeling, it sends a strong message to their employees that it’s okay to talk about their mental health. This transparency allows for honest conversations between people at different levels of the business hierarchy. 

Why it doesn't always work

There’s a reason this approach isn’t common everywhere – it’s difficult. It can be hard to put yourself out there, especially in a workplace, and even more so for those in positions of authority. However, there are ways that leaders can create a mentally healthy workplace for their employees.

The ability to share mental health challenges at work isn’t a luxury afforded to employees in all jobs. There are circumstances where it isn’t appropriate to share issues surrounding your mental health, which can be a tricky situation to navigate. 

If you’re unsure of whether to talk about your mental health at work, this pros and cons tool can help you make an informed decision. 

Advantages of being open about mental health in the workplace

  • reduces stigma – normalising the discussion of mental health at work breaks down barriers 
  • builds trust – employees will feel comfortable sharing with their colleagues and superiors
  • demonstrates leadership – managers can set a strong example for their staff and the business
  • raises awareness – if nothing else, it furthers the broader mental health conversation.

Managing someone with a mental health condition 
How to talk about mental health with your workmates 

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