How To Be A Mental Health Ally At Work
If one of your co-workers turned up one day with a broken leg, you likely wouldn’t think twice about doing all you could to accommodate them and make their working life more comfortable. And yet, when someone shares with colleagues that they’re struggling with a mental health issue, they can be met with indifference or scepticism. People are often unsure how to approach the situation, are scared of doing or saying the wrong thing, or – worst of all – think their colleague who’s suffering should suck it up and stop complaining. Research suggests that nearly one in seven people will experience mental health problems at work, and that an astonishing 12.7% of all sick days can be attributed to poor mental health. Unfortunately, however, most people suffer in silence, fearful that they’ll be viewed as less valuable or capable than their peers. In this blog post, we’re taking a look at a few simple steps to help you become a mental health ally at work, and start making a positive difference.
Maybe you’ve been lucky enough never to suffer with poor mental health, or maybe one of your colleagues has a mental health condition that you don’t quite understand. Either way, educating yourself can be the first step to being a more understanding and empathetic ally. Take the time to learn about the stigma and historical prejudice associated with certain conditions, and how that can make it difficult for sufferers to open up and ask for help. Seek out the lived experiences of people who’ve struggled with their mental health, learn about the challenges they’ve faced, and what kind of support helped them the most. A good ally comes equipped to nudge someone into making the right decisions when it comes to opening up and seeking therapy, and knows where to find useful resources.
Don’t try to offer advice
You can guarantee that people suffering from anxiety and depression have been on the receiving end of lots of unsolicited advice – ‘Have you tried exercise?’ ‘Just stop worrying!’ or ‘Oh, everyone feels like that!’ Although you might think you’re only trying to be helpful, offering your own suggestions can be irritating as it implies that the person hasn’t already tried everything they can to get better. When someone complains about how they’re feeling, it isn’t an invitation to try to solve their problem – it’s an invitation to listen without judgement. If you really feel compelled to try to help them, try asking if there’s anything they’d like you to do for them.
With one in four of us suffering from mental health issues at some point in our lives, chances are there’s a fair few people in your workplace who are struggling – and you can’t tell who based on appearances. Making sure you’re kind to everyone around you is a small gesture that can go a long way, particularly if you work somewhere with a toxic atmosphere. Small acts of kindness like holding a door open, smiling in the corridor and offering to make the tea are proven to have a positive psychological impact on sufferers of depression, as well as create a generally more positive and prosocial atmosphere. After all, it’s easy to be kind, and you never know whose day you might be changing for the better.
Be aware of the signs
Despite the prevalence of mental health issues, most people don’t talk about it or ever receive any form of treatment. It can also be hard to tell if someone is struggling, as there aren’t always any obvious external signs. Because of the stigma, many people learn to mask their feelings around other people, and put on a convincing front that nothing’s wrong. However, no matter how hard people work to cover up mental health issues at work, the impact on their personal life often can’t be avoided. This might manifest as a colleague appearing less engaged than usual, missing deadlines, showing up late, bring irritable, or seeming overly tired. If you notice someone exhibiting some of these signs, be sure to create plenty of space for them to open up to you, offer extra support, and treat them with respect and understanding.
Remember, there’s a time and a place for everything – and that includes talking about mental health. If you decide the time has come to have a conversation with a colleague who may be struggling, that means figuring out a time and place that’s best for them, not you. Mental health is still a very taboo topic for some, and it’s important to remember that not everyone will be comfortable discussing mental health at work. In these instances, it may mean making time to chat away from the office. If you do decide to talk at work, it’s important to devote your full attention to the conversation – that means minimising disruptions like phones ringing or teams notifications.
Pay attention to your language
Negative language related to mental health is insidious, and often crops up in everyday conversation without us even realising. However, making the effort to use the right language is an important part of being a mental health ally. For example, describing someone as being ‘treated for’ a mental illness rather being a ‘victim of’, and saying that someone is ‘being treated for anorexia’ rather than ‘an anorexic’.
Be an advocate
People suffering from mental health issues may not have the physical or emotional energy to advocate for acceptance and understanding – which is where allies can step up and make a difference. Try opening up a dialogue with your employer about the importance of creating a healthy and supportive working environment, and make suggestions you think could help. For example, you could set up a lunchtime support group, or ask your employers to add talking therapy as a workplace benefit for those who need it.
Ultimately, becoming a mental health ally at work could mean the difference between a colleague choosing to quit their job altogether, or persevering in a supportive and understanding environment. In fact, research confirms that having the support of even one person can have a hugely positive impact on sufferers’ quality of life. So, stay aware of the signs, create space to talk, and keep advocating for taboo-free spaces where mental health can be discussed free from shame or judgement.
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