Mental health in the workplace has been a topic that, unfortunately until the second half of the 2000’s, was ‘swept under the rug’ as a non-issue or at least one that ‘could not’ and ‘should not’ be talked about. The majority in the workforce were of course comfortable telling a superior at work about medical and/or personal needs such as medical and dental appointments, physical injuries, physical health issues and time needed for bereavement, but any mental health struggles could not be revealed or made evident, sadly, for numerous reasons. These reasons, with some continuing today, include the stigma attached to mental health (I.e., being ‘mentally ill’ or ‘unstable’), being viewed as ‘weak,’ and/or being viewed as incapable of managing stress or the demands of one’s job. The good news is that many of those who were once in positions of leadership at companies and organizations, who were of what most consider an ‘old school mentality,’ are now entering retirement and those who have been raised in a world where increased education in, and understanding and acceptance of, mental health has taken place are now in positions of leadership. While Canadians become slowly and steadily more understanding and accepting of mental health in the workplace, below I explore the challenges many still encounter at the workplace and how you can help yourself and your co-workers manage their mental health at work too.

1) Communication with Co-Workers and Leadership

As we go about our daily lives in today’s fast paced world and the demands it brings, we have become less skilled at what therapists and counsellors call ‘active listening.’  Active listening is a skill in which we listen fully and intentionally without thinking about what we are going to say next/going to respond with while the other person is talking. It is also paying attention to one’s body language, tone of voice and what the other person is trying to convey is key to understanding and providing support to a co-worker in need. This may sound easy enough, but it is actually a skill counsellors and therapists themselves are trained in and must learn to practice intentionally!

Paraphrasing or ‘parroting’ what a struggling co-worker is saying to us is also a great skill to practice as, when we occasionally repeat back to someone a main point/concern they have expressed to us, it signals to that person that they are not only being heard, but truly cared for, supported, and understood. This is a key component in trust being built in the workplace and employees obtaining the help they may need regarding their mental health struggle(s) (E.g., stress, anxiety, workplace conflict, depression, etc.). Expressing empathy towards a co-worker who has opened up about their mental health is also a valuable tool in building trust and contributing to a workplace that is more open, supportive and accepting. Expressing empathy is perhaps the simplest, yet severely underestimated, act we can take to support co-workers who may be struggling. Showing true empathy is not showing what we often view as ‘sympathy.’ We must try to avoid signalling to co-workers that we feel ‘sorry’ for them, but instead that we are trying our best to understand their experience to be a real experience that is difficult for them as an individual… This is TRUE EMPATHY. We must always be mindful that our co-workers’ experiences are not our own and what may be difficult for them and their life, may not necessarily be difficult for us… and this does NOT make their experience any less important or urgent.

2)  Building Trust and Approaching and Supporting Co-Workers in Need

*‘Checking-in’: We as humans have always tended to wait until issues arise before addressing them as opposed to ‘catching signs’ early on that something may be an issue/becoming an issue. The good news is that we all tend to do this at times and can become better at not letting this continue to be the case through practice. Practicing ‘checking in’ with your co-workers’ and/or employees on a weekly basis whether it be in person (*always best), phone, text or email, is essential to a mentally healthy workplace. Making sure the communication is personalized and not always a ‘generic’ email or message that is being sent to all employees is also important… remember, we’re all different with differing issues and needs!

*Encouraging and Asking Questions:  Those in leadership positions (E.g., Managers) encouraging open discussion about mental health and how it is not something the company will judge employees negatively for, how it is nothing to be afraid of, etc., is essential to companies conveying to all employees that the workplace is not only focused on work alone, but employee health as a whole and the mental well-being of all employees. The sooner management realizes that employee mental health is vital to company success and their employee’s overall health, the sooner a company can thrive and grow in all ways (and this has been recently demonstrated by many ‘start-up’ technology companies in the Waterloo, Ontario region in particular!). Remembering that people will keep their struggles and concerns private unless they feel they are in a safe and non-judgmental environment (where people are more likely to be open!) is also essential. Not only does a counselling and therapy office, like mine, need to always provide a trusting, open, safe, and comfortable environment, but all workplaces should strive to do so too.

* ‘Being the Change You Want to See’ and Empowering Others: It’s simply human nature that when a ‘leader’ does not ‘practice what he/she preaches,’ trust, respect, positivity and productivity are much less likely to be demonstrated by employees… and understandably so! And while much of what I do as a therapist is based in psychology and science, energy, when it comes to forming trust, respect, positivity and productivity, is a powerful thing that we pass onto each other, especially when it comes from leadership. As a leader and co-worker, doing ones best to show others that you’re trustworthy, are worthy of respect, are positive and optimistic with your attitude and behaviours, major change can happen in the culture of a workplace and the mental health of employees!

If you’re a sports fan, you’ve seen many times how a manager simply cannot put a bunch of talented players on a team and expect them to win… you can have all of the talent in the world, but, if traits like trust, communication, cooperation and dedication do not exist (because it has not been encouraged and supported TO BE built), ‘winning’ simply will not and cannot happen. As a manager/leader within a company, one’s goal should not only be productivity, meeting budgets, deadlines, quotas and ‘the bottom line,’ because what must come first is creating an environment where employees feel involved (E.g., in decision making) and valued (I.e., leadership considering and implementing their ideas and respecting their skills and perspectives), and trusted. When employees feel that they are actually contributing to the growth and success of a company, that is when a workplace thrives and employee happiness thrives as well…

3) Sharing One’s Own Story

One of the simplest and most effective ways of gaining the trust of someone who is struggling is by not only empathizing with their struggles, but self-disclosing/telling one’s own story with struggle/mental health. While this can be an uncomfortable thing for many to consider doing, knowing how powerful this can be for the person in need can help one ‘override’ their apprehension to share. When we share our own stories, we signal to others’ that we’re ‘human too’ and that what they are going through does not make them ‘weak,’ alone, or incapable.

Jordon (RSW/MA) is a counsellor, therapist, and coach at Brant Mental Health Solutions, located at 34 McMurray Street, Brantford, Ontario. Jordon holds a Master of Arts in Counselling, is a Certified Coach Practitioner and is currently working under the supervision of a Registered Social Worker. Jordon specializes in helping clients manage stress, overcome anxiety, low mood, interpersonal issues and difficult life transitions.