Implementing mental health promotion initiatives at work usually comes with a few speed bumps. If it’s a brand new concept for your team members you might experience some resistance. In the beginning it can feel artificial, uncomfortable and even embarrassing for some – much like physical health and safety issues did in the past. It was only a handful of years ago that speaking up about physical safety hazards at work became commonplace, or that employees who had sustained a physical injury at work felt comfortable seeking effective medical attention and taking recommended time off rather than “powering through”. With time, consistency and a strong, clear strategy for psychological health and safety, talking about mental health at work will become an integrated part of your workplace’s culture. In the meantime, be prepared to face some hurdles that may stem from the four commonly believed myths below.
1. Employees often use mental health problems to get special treatment, as an excuse for not pulling their weight or to otherwise “get off easy”
Disclosing a mental health problem doesn’t mean a person no longer has any responsibilities, and a well thought out accommodation plan supports a person in fulfilling their duties by different means, not necessarily doing less. An employee who uses a wheelchair isn’t seen as “getting off easy” for using a ramp instead of the stairs, and their employer is legally required to make the ramp available. We should look at accommodating mental health needs in the same way. An equitable workplace gives employees what they need to be successful in their roles. It takes a great deal of courage for an employee to ask for support for a mental health issue from their employer. Because of stigma, it’s widely believed that the number of employees who are struggling and could benefit from support and/or an accommodation don’t reach out far exceeds the number of unfounded or exaggerated cases.
2. It’s not professional or appropriate to talk about mental health at work
Sharing our deepest, darkest secrets at work might not be appropriate for the workplace but talking about things like our stress level and mood should feel relatively natural in the same way that you might share with your co-worker than you had a cold last week. Emerging research tells us that chit-chat among employees is not the time waster it was once believed to be. Sharing pieces of our personal lives with our “work family” strengthens social connections and team cohesion which actually increases productivity. Promoting a non-judgmental, trusting workplace culture is a step in the right direction for psychological health and safety.
3. Managers can end up in hot water if they bring up a suspected mental health issue with an employee
Leaders in the workplace who don’t personally feel comfortable talking about mental health might avoid bringing it up to employees for fear of saying the wrong thing or making things worse. Many don’t realize the law requires that people-managers have basic skills in recognizing and appropriately addressing potential mental health problems in their team members and holds them accountable for failing to do so. Check out this great article from Mondaq that breaks down the Duty to Inquire in easy-to-understand terms. Obviously, managers need to make sure the time and place is appropriate and that it’s brought up in a sensitive way, but turning a blind eye carries significant risk and makes bigger problems down the line more likely.
4. Admitting you’re struggling with your mental health could result in not getting a promotion or monetary bonus, having responsibilities taken away or even dismissal from your job
The Canadian Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on, among other things, disability – which includes mental health challenges. Discriminatory attitudes and practices can take many different forms, so employers and employees should make sure they understand their rights and responsibilities. The Act also sets forth the Duty to Accommodate, obliging employers to make adjustments up to the point of undue hardship to enable all employees to participate and engage fully in their roles and workplaces.
When we know better, we do better. Have you seen or heard things that give you the impression some of the myths above are impacting the way mental health is approached in your workplace? Make it a priority to dispel these misconceptions as an important step forward in a psychologically safe and healthy work environment.
Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to frequent keynote speaking and corporate training on mental health she is the owner/operator of Arpeggio Health Services, Atlantic Canada’s largest provider of public mental health trainings. Learn more at elizabetheldridge.com, summitcorporatewellness.com and arpeggiohealthservices.com.