Note: a version of this blog first appeared in 2018. We have since updated it to bring you the best advice.
Mental health issues make people feel uncomfortable. I'm not talking about people who suffer from them – I mean the people who don't. When you don't have any personal experience of poor mental health, it can be – excuse the pun – difficult to get your head around.
If you meet a friend or co-worker hobbling along on crutches, you can immediately sympathize and empathize. You notice and process the clues easily, because you recognize what you see, and understand its likely consequences. And it's possible that you've suffered a similar injury yourself in the past, and almost literally "feel their pain."
But the clues that someone has a mental health issue can be far more difficult to identify and react to.
Chances are, someone with such a condition is doing their best to hide it. They'll forego the opportunity to receive any of that same sympathy and empathy because it's risky. Having anything less than 100 percent good mental health holds a stigma. So it can be tricky to know what to say if someone does confide in you, or if you find out some other way.
Mental Health Is a Battle on Two Fronts
Social awkwardness is unfortunate, but the shame and fear it can lead to can create lasting damage.
People can be extremely reluctant to reveal their mental struggles because of the potential impact on their careers and relationships. And so they fight on two fronts – managing the condition itself and trying to present a "normal" façade to the rest of the world.
I described my own, mercifully short, battle with post-traumatic stress after a serious motorcycle accident in this Mind Tools blog. I still recall the fear I had of talking to anyone – family, friend or work colleague – about that consequence of the crash.
The isolation and sense of worthlessness that many people experience as a result of mental health issues can be devastating, as highlighted by the World Health Organization. The 2022 WHO report reveals that even when help is available, it's not taken up. The authors said, "People will often choose to suffer mental distress without relief rather than risk the discrimination and ostracization that comes with accessing mental health services."
Wellbeing in the Workplace
I like to think that, as individuals, we can overcome our initial awkwardness and confusion at learning that a colleague is facing a health challenge, and that we will be supportive and accepting. After all, isn't this what we need ourselves whenever we're having a tough time?
But can organizations do more to help us all to succeed and thrive at work?
Managers have to balance their responsibilities to their team members and to their organization. And, when it comes to health, these responsibilities need not conflict.
A workplace that's safe, both physically and mentally, and that enables its people to look after themselves and one another, will likely suffer less absenteeism and presenteeism. It will support more honest conversations, and engender more loyalty and trust. And all of these attributes can surely only help the bottom line.
This Mind Tools video explores six ways that organizations, leaders, and managers can support their people's mental health.
Points to Ponder: What Are Your Experiences of Mental Health at Work?
If you've managed someone facing a mental health issue, what strategies did you use? And if you've ever discussed your own mental health with your manager or co-workers, what reaction did you get? What approach does your organization take to mental health, and why?
If you would like to explore Mind Tools resources on mental health, here's a list for further reading:
Personal Financial Stress and Wellbeing
How to Deal With Anxiety
Managing Post-Traumatic Growth
About the Author:
Keith is a managing editor at Mind Tools and has been part of the content team since 2015. He's an experienced editor, writer and manager, with a long history of working in the e-learning and media industries.