It's time to talk about mental health at work

Three steps to start having better wellbeing conversations

This month, a Business in the Community report revealed that 61% of UK employees have experienced a mental health issue at work, or where work was a contributing factor. We can expect that this statistic would be replicated in other major developed economies.

Does this surprise you? In some ways it’s shocking and yet, entirely not. Long hours, high pressure environments, and, frequently, the expectations that high achievers place on themselves all contribute to overwhelm. That can lead to depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders. Often, it’s those who appear most successful and competent who can be carrying the hidden burden of illness.

This has a significant impact on business, with poor mental health a cause of absenteeism, lower performance standards, and decline in the quality of teamwork and internal relationships. Many organizations now offer employee assistance programs, to provide confidential support employees in times of challenge. However, the uptake rate of these services is as low as five percent in some industries,   which HR leaders attribute to ongoing stigma about mental health. If over half the workforce has experience with mental health challenges, then even accounting for those people who seek help from other sources, the support gap is significant.

The impetus is clear: we need to talk about mental health at work. 

Despite acknowledging this need, however, many organizations still hesitate to start conversations about employee wellbeing. We understand. Talking about mental health can be intimidating: it’s normal to worry about saying the wrong thing, or not knowing what to say at all. 

In this article, we suggest three ways you can get started with talking about mental health; and, hopefully, create a culture that encourages people to seek support, before they become part of the statistics.


1. Make it visual

Often, people show few outward signs of poor mental health. Symptoms like fatigue and irritability can be attributed to a busy lifestyle, making it not just hard for colleagues, but individuals themselves to recognize that a problem is brewing. 

Workplaces can play a helpful role in helping people identify the risk factors and early signs of poor mental health. Simple tools like informational posters and flyers placed in common areas work well because people can digest the messages, free from other distractions (bathrooms are a surprisingly good place).

Physical communications like posters may feel outdated in the digital age, but they’re a great tool for wellbeing campaigns, because by becoming part of an organization’s visual identity, they play an important role in embedding messages about wellbeing culture.  

Remote or mobile employees? What about a text or Slack message with a link to a digital version of the poster? Or invite people back to the home office for morning tea and a conversation about mental health.

Physical communications should always be supported by digital resources, such as intranet articles with further information and links to EAP programs or other places employees can ask for help confidentially. 

2. Appoint mental health ambassadors

Not knowing who to talk to when you’re worried about your health can be a big barrier to seeking help. Well-founded or not, employees often fear professional penalization if they talk to their line manager, or even HR.

Training volunteers from across the business to act as mental health first responders can be a useful way to overcome these concerns. These people can be identified by a badge or button, and will support a culture that welcomes conversations about mental health.


3. Storytelling

People who are concerned about their mental health often feel isolated. They worry silently, afraid that disclosing their concerns will lead others to judge them, or think of them solely in terms of their illness.

We have found that storytelling is an incredibly effective way to break through these worries and encourage people to act. When employees hear people like them talking about their lived experience of mental health, it helps them to recognize themselves in the story being told. It also reduces fear when they hear stories about recovery and people being able to manage their condition, and going on to have successful careers and family lives. 

It may seem challenging to find people willing to talk about their experiences, but in stable, people-first cultures, there is often a surprising willingness to share openly, in order to help others. 

I was fortunate, in a previous role, to have the opportunity of working on just such a project, where some amazing colleagues explained that their experience with mental health challenges is just one part of who they are. The video series we created started a powerful conversation about mental health, and led many people to seek help for the first time


There are lots of interventions, large and small, that can help to create and maintain workplace cultures that support good mental health. Resilience programs, emotionally intelligent leadership and planned, thoughtful communications all contribute to a healthy workplace. 

How confident is your organization with talking about mental health? 

It doesn’t have to be scary. We can support you to develop a plan that builds a strong wellbeing communication culture. Our first conversation is always free, because we believe in partnerships, not projects.