The Best Place to Support Mental Health? The Workplace.
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Today, World Mental Health Day, represents an ideal time to start correcting misconceptions about mental health in this country and improve how we support those who most need help. This includes taking the conversation about assisting those experiencing a mental health condition to a place where it hasn't gone before: the workplace.
Over the last few decades, employers have taken a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to employee health, leaving employees to perpetuate an unspoken rule and keep their work and private lives separate. Employers' fears of running afoul of privacy or discrimination laws has led most to err on the side of caution and not broach serious health-related conversations with employees.
Americans spend about one-third of their lives on the job. Often, they're spending more time with colleagues than with loved ones at home. As mental health concerns become more prevalent, the workplace may be the one constant in a person's life positioned to offer support. Executive leaders should strive to make employees comfortable with coming to their employer for help.
As a country, employers -- managers, supervisors and even CEOs -- need to be agents of change. Instead of expecting employees to check their problems at the door and ignore their personal lives in the pursuit of productivity, employers must embrace their role in promoting resources that can help.
This requires employers to overcome preconceived notions of how people with a mental health condition act, what they can do and how they can contribute to society. Mental illnesses are medical conditions, not a sign of weakness or incompetence. Common myths about mental illnesses -- like that someone can just "snap out of it" -- can get in the way and complicate the process of supporting an employee who is struggling.
Understanding the warning signs of mental health conditions and opening the lines of communication to have supportive conversations can go a long way. A manager thinking an employee is "off" may be nothing. But, a manager's sixth sense is often a lifeline for employees with mental health conditions. Poor hygiene, sloppy work, excessive tardiness -- or even just noticing that a formerly sociable employee isn't going to lunch with coworkers -- can all be signs of a bigger issue. Instead of turning a blind eye, employers need to start asking if the "sad" employees need assistance.
For many, having someone listen to them -- without passing judgment -- can start a positive chain reaction. A simple "What's going on?" or "Are you all right?" can speak volumes. Because, if an employer is right and an employee is experiencing a larger issue, understanding and saying, "I'm here for you," can start the process for an employee to receive the help he or she needs. Referring employees to available resources like an employee assistance program, disability carrier or suicide hotline can put that employee on the path to recovery.
We can't expect the mental health crisis to resolve itself. It's no longer acceptable for anyone to say that someone's personal problem doesn't concern them. Let's change the way our country treats work-life balance and give employees with mental health conditions the support they need.