Mental Health and the Office Why It Matters More Than Ever to Be Open About Your Struggles

Guest contributed by Katie McBethSad businesswoman

Every year World Mental Health Day is commemorated. This day of recognition is meant to help raise awareness, help dismantle the stigma, and provide those who suffer with access to support if they need it.

The focus of last year was mental health in the office: how awareness, stigma, and our work-life balance can affect workforces around the world. In America, especially, working women are often struggling to balance their life in and out of the office, and are finding it even more difficult to not let the stresses of the outside world affect their work and productivity. Although there is an increased awareness around mental illness, there is still a strong stigma on discussing it at work.

What does this mean for working women who suffer from mental illness? How can we not only become more successful in our careers, but also be more accepted for our invisible conditions? How can office leaders make a difference for all their employees? These questions can be an especially tough to parse, but they are extremely important for opening up the dialogue around mental illness in the office.

Erasing Stigma Through Dialogue

Over a lifetime, it’s estimated that the average full-time American worker spends about 90,000 hours at work. It’s no wonder, then, why this year’s theme of Mental Health Awareness Day was focused on the office. Our jobs take up a large portion of our lives, and the environment around us, our work habits, and our outside life can all factor into our mental and physical well-being.

However, it’s rare to hear conversations about mental health while actually in the office. Much of this can be due to the vulnerability of opening up about mental health conditions, but it could also be due to the fact that patriarchal standards still reign supreme in business. The idea of exposing mental illness — as well as emotion or empathy — can be seen as a weakness.

Numerous studies have come to prove this to be false, and in fact honing your emotional intelligence can play a large part in improving a business and can really shine in management. Empathy and communication, in particular, have shown to reduce employee turnover, improve team morale, and increase productivity for individuals and teams.

When discussing mental health, one of the biggest hurdles in addressing it can be the stigmas that exist around these conditions: both social stigmas (those created by society) and self stigmas (those created internally by people who suffer from mental illness). However, some of those stigmas are beginning to change, and much of that is thanks to the people who are brave enough to speak up and be open about it, and to those that have the empathy and patience to listen and learn. Scientific research has also shown that people are more willing to seek out help — via therapy, counseling, or medication — when they can overcome these stigmas.

For those of us that suffer from mental illness, being open about our struggles and our conditions can be inherently powerful. However, it can be difficult to be open if we don’t have a support system in place. On the reverse, having a supportive, empathetic, and kind boss can be a major factor in helping those that suffer feel less stigmatized by their invisible condition. Empathy is also extremely powerful, especially in the office and especially among those in management and leadership positions.

Accepting Mental Health as Physical Health

There’s a reason mental illness is referred to as an “invisible condition.” Although common misconceptions often overlook the body-mind connection, there is plenty of evidence to show that mental illnesses can have a profound effect on the physical body.

However, the general population that doesn’t suffer from mental illness could still suffer from occasional bouts of depression or anxiety brought on by work, or even external circumstances or trauma —. Prolonged exposure to stress can have physical effects as well, which is why it is all the more important to consider allowing mental health days at work.

Sick days allow employees the opportunity to stay at home and recover from the flu or from injuries. Mental health days, on the other hand, allow employees the opportunity to stay at home, relax, rest, and recover. Even for employees that don’t suffer from mental illness, mental health days allow them a chance to step away from the stress of the office and hopefully find ways to practice de-stressing techniques. About 25 percent of Americans agree that work is a main stress-point for them, and stepping away can help them find tranquility, as well as make them better workers for when they do return to the office.

Organizational stress — can result in disengagement if it goes on too long or is unaddressed. Allowing employees the chance to step away from the stress of work can help them feel more appreciated. It can also help them refocus on tasks and be more engaged in the office.

Mental health days go beyond helping those who suffer from mental illness and can help everyone feel better about their work. Examples of this increased emphasis on mental wellness can be seen in European countries where work weeks are shorter, vacation times are longer, and employees are generally happier to be working for their company. If only America could pick up these same practices, maybe our workforce would be better for it.

Changing the Workplace for the Better

Especially in the workplace, Mental Health Awareness Day — where it is frowned upon to discuss these ailments —can help create a dialogue that could lead to lasting changes for everyone.

Being a professional working women who suffers from mental illness can be difficult. Facing the constant stigma of our conditions, as well as the threat of losing our jobs if we’re having a bad day, or even being the subject of ridicule or discrimination because we can’t “showcase” our condition, is a daily worry. There will always be someone to try to put you down for something you cannot control about yourself.

However, our office is no place to face this sort of targeted discrimination, and having a supportive and understanding boss can help prevent sufferers from being alienate at their place of employment. Additionally, raising awareness around the effects of mental illness and stress in the workplace can help carve the paths for healthier lifestyle choices and happier employees.

There are ways to make lasting change in the office and in our lives, but it starts with one simple step: having a conversation. If you suffer from mental illness and feel like your manager will be receptive to discussing your concerns, then maybe it’s time to have that talk. If you’re a manager and want to showcase your support for all your employees, be open about allowing mental health days in the office, and perhaps provide resources for those that need it.

Finally, if you suffer from serious mental illness and are afraid that it will interfere with your work, know that you are not suffering alone. Seek out help, find treatment, and know that although you may have this condition forever, it will not limit the great things you plan to do with your life. You do not have to suffer in silence, and you do not deserve to be stigmatized. Let’s work on making the world a little better for everyone.

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