For World Mental Health Day — and with Small Business Week just around the corner — we are bringing back this blog post from 2019, emphasizing the importance of being open and honest about mental wellness in the workplace. The message holds up and now is the perfect time to remind ourselves that mental health matters today and every day.
Getting Real About Workplace Mental Health
By Sam Madore | Originally posted at www.sammadore.ca | November, 2019
I recently had the opportunity to speak about my experience and knowledge around mental health in the workplace as part of the local chamber of commerce’s Small Business Week. This is a topic that I am very passionate about and I quickly realized there was no way I was going to be able to fit everything I wanted to say into a forty-five minute window.
I was reminded by my friends at CMHA that the best way to connect with people on most topics is to share a personal story, rather than research and statistics. So that’s just what I did. I have experience, after all. It’s been nine years since I admitted that I suffer from depression and anxiety. It’s been about five and a half years since I started to be comfortable enough to share this with others outside of my family, close friends and therapist. I’ve been an employee, an employer and an entrepreneur.
Since I began openly sharing my personal experience with mental illness, I have felt at various times embraced, judged, supported, supportive, isolated, and bullied. Though progress has been made, the stigma around mental illness absolutely still exists, particularly in reference to the workplace.
As a manager, employer, or entrepreneur, it is so important to create and foster a culture of openness and inclusion and mental wellness. It is important to have a language around mental health and to have open conversations with employees. It is important to model these conversations by being open about your own vulnerabilities. And it is especially important, in the midst of all of this, to set healthy and professional boundaries. The goal should be to improve the dynamic in the workplace as a whole, not to counsel or try to improve the individual employees.
I think it is important to make the distinction that, when people are open about their mental illness with their employer, it is not because they are looking for special treatment. They are looking for equal treatment. That their mental illness is treated the same as their colleague with a physical illness, for example.
The worst thing you can do is to start treating us with kid gloves, assuming what we can and cannot handle in our workload because of what we may be struggling with mentally. In fact, the fear of just that is why so many people would choose to not openly discuss their mental illness. Will they overlook me for the promotion? Will they not include me in that new project? And, for me, will that potential client choose another person because of what they think I can’t handle based on what I’ve openly shared?
As the person who is struggling with mental illness and trying to navigate through work, life, and work-life integration, it is important to break down daily tasks and encounters into small, manageable pieces. This is a list that works for me when handling my mental health at work (and in life):
- Get rid of negative people. Stand up for yourself when it feels right and rational to do so. Bullying in the workplace (and life) is real and it shouldn’t be tolerated.
- Get out of your own way. Turn off your inner bully (also real) and stop holding yourself back unnecessarily.
- Get real. I can’t stress this one enough. You have to be honest with yourself before you can be honest with others. It took me a long time to admit to myself that what I was suffering from was even a real thing (a mental illness, not a weakness). I then had to understand that it wasn’t my fault. After that huge hurdle, I then had to be okay with sharing it with other people. I had to trust that they would hear me without judgement (or I had to be okay with the judgement)… I had to be (gasp) vulnerable.
- Treat Yourself. Set manageable goals and treat yourself when you reach them.
- Distract Yourself. When your irrational thoughts kick in, distract your way back to your task at hand. Mel Robbins’ five second rule works for me. Find out what works for you.
- Forgive Yourself. You are only human. It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to have setbacks. It’s okay to have people not like you. It’s okay to try and fail and let go (let go of people, regrets, rejection, decisions, struggles, the need for validation, the need for people to like you, things that you said, how you reacted, comparisons, judgements, the list goes on…). It’s okay to not be okay.
- Be Yourself.
This is a list for myself as much as it is a list for anyone else. I am very much a work in progress when it comes to all of this. One of the things I have always struggled with in my own mental health journey is that, though I often know exactly what I need to do to get through, I rarely seem to be able to put it into practice. But if I am honest with myself and others, if I give myself the space I need when I need it, and I push myself when I know I need to, I feel safe to say that I am doing the best I can.
And, chances are, so are you. ?