Destigmatizing Conversations Around Mental Health At Your Workplace: The How-To

The days of a stoic leader are gone, people now want their managers to be transparent, to embrace vulnerability and show that they are human.

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“I don’t even know how I feel. I’m just numb,” I told my colleagues during our daily all-hands team call as news of death and devastation in India engulfed my social media feed. My colleagues, many of them in India themselves, responded by sharing what they were going through and what made them anxious as they waited for the inevitable news of a loved one testing positive to hit home. 

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This is one of the many conversations about wellbeing that we have had as a team which have helped me to learn what accommodations I need to put in place within my organization and which team members need to be better supported. Companies and executives can no longer afford to ignore the mental health of their team members particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. While here in the UAE, we are lucky that life has resumed, but for those who have families elsewhere or are working remotely from their home countries, it might still be a difficult time. 

Amidst this, the taboo around mental health still persists but it is crucial to do your part as a leader and as an organization to help normalize conversations around the subject. Here are some of the ways in which you can destigmatize mental health at work. 

1. Speak up As a leader, you set the tone and culture of your organization, and if you speak up about your experiences with mental health, or if you open up about what you’re going through, you’re going to not only build a bond with your team members, but also show them that you understand and value the importance of wellbeing. You will inculcate a safe space, allowing room for conversation and empathy- both of which are necessary in a company. The days of a stoic leader are gone, people now want their managers to be transparent, to embrace vulnerability and show that they are human, that they care, and also that they are prone to going through some of the same challenges. 

2. Listen and reassure Foster a safe space to have conversations around mental health and what challenges employees are going through. What often holds people back at work from speaking up is the fear of repercussions if they do talk about their mental health challenges, so it is important to reiterate that their position at work won’t be affected in any manner. You can create breakout groups, have one-on-one conversations over coffee, hold a town hall meeting, and even send out an anonymous survey to actually hear from your team. If you feel that some may be hesitant to open up to you, appoint wellness ambassadors who are on the same organizational level to speak and listen to their peers and provide you with feedback. 

Related: A Look At How Businesses In Dubai Are Ensuring The Physical And Mental Well-Being Of Their Employees Amid COVID-19

3. Accommodate and support Once you know what challenges your team is facing, look at how you can address them. It can be by covering therapy costs or providing subsidized therapy, allowing for more flexible hours, continuing with work from home, establishing a workplace wellness program or bringing in wellbeing experts and coaches to hold sessions for your colleagues. There is a wide variety of support systems and steps you can implement to better support the wellbeing of your team members that are best suited to their needs and addressing their concerns. 

4. Evaluate the work culture and give leeway We are all going through a tough time which is why it is important to be kind and flexible. A support system won’t be effective if you don’t make changes to the overall work environment, especially if that is one of the main stressors for employees. What are the toxic points in your organization that need to be addressed? Do you expect too much of your team and are too rigid in your approach? Do you call them after work hours or do you respect their personal time? Is there pressure on them to work even on their days off or to be instantly available? All of these can have an immense impact on an individual and can exacerbate mental health challenges they may already be experiencing. Keep in mind that you need also to simultaneously address and evaluate the work culture while you put wellbeing support in place, because you will find overlaps between the two. 

5. Let go of toxic positivity We’re all guilty of this, but it’s about time we learn to unlearn toxic positivity and statements just as “be strong,” or “cheer up,” and others which do more harm than good. These help no one and further contribute to the stigma around mental health and invalidate an individual’s lived experiences. You may think you’re being supportive by advocating that they should always embrace a positive mindset and look at the positives in each situation, but it’s really not that simple. By preaching toxic positivity, you’re instead going to set your team back and also make them hesitant when opening up to you if they know that they won't be listened to but instead will be talked at. 

Related: Four Ways Businesses Can Support Employees' Mental Health Amid COVID-19

Aakanksha Tangri

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Aakanksha Tangri is founder of Re:Set, a resource platform for fostering gender, inclusivity, mental health and well-being.