Mental health is one of those topics that virtually everyone is impacted by, yet few people want to talk about. For many, it's a scary topic that invokes fear, a lack of control and uncertainty. Yet this dynamic is changing. Employees are starting to talk about mental health and seek a culture of support. In general, people are starting to understand that mindfulness is vital to their health and well-being. 

A study published recently in Harvard Business Review found that while nearly 60% of U.S. workers have never broached the topic at work, 86% say it's important to focus on mental health in company culture. As someone who's suffered from burnout caused by working 90-hour weeks, I know mental health and professional success are interdependent. 

What does a culture of mental health look like? Although most people wouldn't mind the perks, it's not about free massages or wellness stipends. A culture based on good mental health requires creating a place for employees to feel safe, seen, heard and supported. 

Here are a number of ways to create a culture of mental health and improve the well-being, health and productivity of your team. 

1. Decide to have a conversation

When workers are struggling with emotional or mental well-being, it shows. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of mental health issues include persistent sadness, withdrawal from others, subpar stress management, hostility and a lack of energy.

The signs may be easy to see, but the solution isn't so simple. Should you approach the person directly? Should you ask one of the person's friends in the office to say something? Is it best to avoid the situation entirely?

In my experience, the wrong answer is avoidance. Mental health challenges tend to flourish in isolation, and they snowball from there. In my experience, it's helpful to hold space for a conversation or to help employees understand the resources the company has available. 

2. Start by asking simple questions

If it's clear an employee isn't going to bring the topic up on their own, take the initiative and start a conversation about how they're doing or feeling. The simple act of asking how the person is doing gives them the space to take the conversation where they want it to go, or to the degree that they're comfortable. They may share candidly, and then you can ask how you can offer additional support.

Also, be aware of your tone and delivery during this process. You want to avoid being prescriptive or judgmental in any way. The key here is to approach the conversation as a friend, not as a therapist or detective.

3. Set an example

If you've ever faced depression yourself, you know just how lonely it can be. It's also hard to identify your symptoms because the depression blocks your awareness of the depression. For this reason, it's helpful to have a leader to follow or observe. A culture of good mental health requires a leader to model how employees can express themselves emotionally.

As a facilitator at men's emotional retreats, I've seen how this works firsthand. In almost every case, it takes one person to be vulnerable to give others permission to do the same. As a leader, the domino effect starts with you. By opening up about your own challenges, you establish a sense of safety and trust that encourages the other person to share and express their feelings.

4. Engage an individual through the group

If you don't feel comfortable in a direct conversation, you can communicate safety and connection by engaging a group of employees. I came across an example of this in action. 

Mike Novotny, CEO of Medrio, recalls a conference he recently attended in which the speaker said, "Raise your hand if you feel trapped by your own company." According to Novotny, nearly every founder in attendance raised his or her hand. I appreciate this example because it provides each person with the opportunity to see that they're not alone in how they feel. 

While the question you ask can vary, try engaging your team at an all-staff meeting. Ask people to raise their hands and then turn around to see other people who feel the same. It's disarming to understand that you're not alone, and this exercise is very powerful in opening up a space for deeper sharing. 

Here are some questions to ask:

  1. How many people feel overwhelmed?

  2. How many people feel anxious at work?

  3. How many people wish they had a moment to slow down and catch their breath?

  4. How many people want to feel more grounded or calmer or have less anxiety?

Note: It's very important that you also participate and answer authentically. If you're also overwhelmed, you must put your hand up. Again, it all starts with you. 

Point the person toward a professional.

No matter how much you want to help, you're not a health professional. You might be able to listen or point the employee to HR, yet oftentimes, the best course of action is to recommend professional help.

Check your health insurance plan, and identify in-network providers for the person in need. Encourage them to talk to a therapist. If you can't make specific referrals, share the phone number for the SAMHSA National Helpline. Because it's federally funded, calls and referrals are free of charge.

Final Word

Consider how these actions can help you address employees who might not feel well. Explore ways you can maintain a culture that supports sustainable mental health. I believe you'll see your team become happier, healthier, closer and more productive. 

Published on: Jan 8, 2020
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.