In 2019, Mind Share Partners published a report about the prevalence and stigma surrounding mental health challenges in U.S. workplaces. Sixty percent of the respondents had not talked to anyone at work about their mental health in the past year. Of those who did, 52 percent described the conversations as neutral or negative. Even more telling is the finding that employees were least comfortable talking about mental health concerns with human resources professionals and senior leaders. These findings all point to the stigma of talking about mental health issues at work.
In spite of the stigma, or perhaps because of it, 86 percent of respondents thought that a company's culture should support mental health. Employees reported that they wanted more mental health training, better communication about resources, and a more open culture about mental health at work.
The pandemic brought mental health to the forefront
In an updated report for 2021, Mind Share Partners found that 65 percent of respondents had spoken to someone at work about their mental health in the past year -- flipping the narrative of the earlier report. The report makes the impact of the pandemic on mental health clear. Not only is talking about mental health at work increasingly the norm, but 76 percent of respondents from all levels of the organization reported experiencing a mental health challenge that year.
These findings were very much in line with my own observations. A year into the pandemic, I spoke with a number of CEOs about the emotional, psychological, and professional challenges they were facing. CEOs were under a new form of pressure unlike anything they had ever experienced, and many felt ill-equipped to navigate the new normal. The companies that fared worst were those with leaders who did not recognize the importance of connecting and communicating with remote or hybrid staff.
A few months after those conversations, employees started to leave their jobs in droves. And we learned that the Great Resignation was not primarily about money but poor communication. Employees felt disconnected from and uncared for by their organizations, which negatively impacted the quality of their lives.
Once seen as unnecessary or thrown in as an afterthought, mental health programs became top of mind for leaders and employees. Mental health is now something we talk about at work, at home, and with friends. Support for positive mental health is what employees want. Smart leaders are listening and trying to be more attentive to the needs of their employees so they can create a better, more engaged culture.
This new conversation around mental health is a welcome change
I am a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), trauma consultant, and business consultant. I've been teaching people how to communicate and resolve their differences for more than 25 years. My clinical and consultation work expanded from family and personal relationships to the workplace. I've consulted with Fortune 500 companies, industry experts, and well-known sports figures, politicians, and top executives.
In the past, my work with businesses and executives was strictly confidential and by referral only.
My clients consistently told me that my communication system saved their business, improved company culture, and created stronger relationships. But they always wanted our work together to be private. They feared they would come across as weak if their competition knew they were consulting with someone with a mental health background.
These days, my mental health background and experience working in the trenches with challenging relationships gives me more credibility. And the companies that take my program, the Communication Protocol, are seen as true leaders in their industries, because caring about your employees and teaching them how to be better communicators is a sign of strength, not weakness. Good communication eases stress, reduces conflicts, creates a positive company culture, and teaches people how to cope and express what they need.
Mental health is not just about helping those in crisis. It is something we all have to pay attention to. It is about people wanting to work in reasonable conditions, feel heard, and be seen as an important part of the larger organization. It's about knowing that when they run into a difficult personal or family circumstance, their employer has systems in place to support them.
Since the topic of mental health in the workplace has finally been normalized, I no longer need to downplay my mental health background. My work with corporations is no longer by referral only, and my clients are happy to talk publicly about our work. The pandemic highlighted the importance of effective communication and building strong connections. Most leaders understand that good communication is essential to positive mental health.
How to create a culture that supports positive mental health
It is not complicated to create an environment that supports positive mental health. Sure, it takes work, but the positive change is worth it. You must have open communication at all levels of your organization, from the top down. Here's how to get started:
- Ask questions. Ask your managers what you or the organization can do better or differently and LISTEN to their answers. Sit with their comments; don't respond right away.
- Encourage your managers to talk with their teams. You want your managers to understand their team members' experiences working for the organization and being on the team. You want them to know what their team members would like to see change or improve. Ask them to listen to what their teams have to say and report back to you so you can determine the best way forward.
- Employ open communication. Allow your employees to express their concerns without fear of repercussions. They shouldn't be afraid of making mistakes. Instead, mistakes should be used as learning opportunities.
- Reject the silo mentality. Staff should not work in isolation. They should be communicating with one another and working together as part of a larger system.
- Create mental health support services within your organization. Employee assistance programs, counseling, and professional support should be readily available to all staff. And all managers should be trained in the basics of effective communication.
Having open communication and transparency throughout an organization creates a culture of belonging. It reduces stress, decreases conflicts, improves engagement and retention, and increases productivity. People feel cared for, and the environment is respectful and calm.
In such a workplace, mental health needs are supported and can be addressed as they develop. When communication is open and ongoing, there are fewer crises, and the crises that do arise are easier to manage.
It is better for everyone -- including your business stakeholders -- when mental health is part of your organizational structure and not a shameful taboo that needs to be hidden away.