Health and Wellness

How to talk about your mental health at work when everything is stressing you out

@natabene

As the lines between work and home life blur, and stress about Covid-19 and the presidential election builds, you might be looking for more emotional support from your colleagues than usual.

"People are struggling with a very difficult situation," Alison Holman, professor at the University of California, Irvine, who studies trauma-related mental and physical health, tells CNBC Make It. Experiencing mental health symptoms, such as stress, anxiety and depression, is "a normal response to an abnormal situation."

It's important for organizations to foster a supportive and accepting work environment that allows people to be their whole authentic selves at work without fearing judgment, Richa Bhatia, a board-certified child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist tells CNBC Make It. Even with formal avenues to get support at work, talking about mental health can still be daunting or just awkward.

Here are some strategies that can help.

Decide what you want to share

Depending on the relationship with your boss or manager, the culture and dynamics of your workplace and your own personal comfort level, you might not feel safe and secure divulging details about your mental health. "It's an individual decision," and one that takes some planning, Bhatia says.

First, you should determine whether you want to talk with your manager or with HR, whichever is more comfortable, Bhatia says. "Employee assistance programs typically provide confidential counseling, so that may be a safer place to start discussing your mental health," she says. Or you might have a manager who is trustworthy, respectful and discreet.

Then, decide how much you need or want to disclose, she says. For example, you might tell your manager that you're taking a mental health day because you're feeling burned out. (If there's a specific accommodation that you need from your manager or workplace, have that in mind before you talk.)

And finally, choose to have this talk at a time when you're feeling relatively calm, she says. "Talk about it in a way where you can also discuss your strengths," she says. For instance, you could tell your manager that you have a standing therapy appointment to discuss stress and anxiety, and emphasize that counseling allows you to be more focused and productive during work hours.

Remember: Having mental health issues is not a weakness

Before the pandemic, studies showed that nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness, and the numbers are even higher now. Despite how pervasive mental health issue are, stigma still exists. Surveys from the National Alliance on Mental Health have found that eight out of 10 workers with a mental health condition say shame and stigma prevent them from seeking mental health care.

It's crucial to remember that having mental health issues is not a weakness, and it does not mean that you're incapable of your job. "Everybody should understand that there are many people in the world who are very successful who live with mental health problems," Holman says. "Incompetence is not it does not equate with having mental health symptoms."

The law also protects people with mental health conditions through the Americans with Disabilities Act. It's a choice whether you want to disclose your mental health conditions, and employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to employees.

Say something besides, 'How are you?'

While asking people, "How are you" is a standard conversation-starter, it typically elicits a short response that doesn't indicate how the person really is.

Instead, you could try asking questions like, "How are you coping?" Or, "What's your current state of mind?" Or perhaps, "How have you been spending your time?" These types of questions signal that it's okay for people to share more, and can be a good way to take people's emotional pulse, Bhatia says.

In certain cases, it might be more effective to simply offer your support and presence, by telling someone, "I'm here if you ever need anything, or want to talk," Bhatia says. Keep in mind that just because someone said they were doing well one day, doesn't mean they will feel the same the next day.

Create space for others to share

Having companionship and support from other people who are going through the same thing can make you feel less alone. That said, not everyone wants to spill their feelings in the middle of an all-hands, or even express their stress in a one-on-one meeting.

If people in your workplace tend to not speak up, or you're concerned and want to hear from other members of your team, it's important to create a safe space for people to express their thoughts and their feelings, Holman says.  

For example, you could create a small, private Slack channel for checking in and sharing mental health resources or set up regular video chat sessions for addressing topics like stress and anxiety. (If this doesn't exist in some format at your workplace, ask your HR representative to set it up.)

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