Secrecy around mental health at work

Secrecy around mental health at work
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Previously I talked about the idea that mental health is bad for your career, in fact busting the myth wide open. But along with this commonplace myth come a load of other issues. Enter: secrecy around mental health at work.

While the topic is gaining momentum, we’re still not in a place where people openly volunteer information about their mental health in the workplace. Thanks to COVID19 I’ve seen the media and employers paying far more attention to mental health, which means companies are looking for ways to address the issue and bring mental wellbeing to the forefront of their agenda. I couldn’t be more excited!

I definitely take heart when I see communities such as the one being built by Sanctus grow, and how many like-minded people are out there trying to make a difference. Likewise, my LinkedIn feed gives me hope as I see many people putting mental health at the top of the agenda.

BUT… Too many people are still afraid to speak up and there remains a lot of secrecy around mental health at work. How many of you know someone who has openly spoken about it, or have dared to do so yourselves? (There is no judgment, I totally understand if you haven’t). I’m guessing it’s a handful of people at best.

Why we keep it a secret

Many of you can probably relate to this idea of keeping mental health or other personal issues a secret in the workplace. For a long time we were taught to keep our private and professional lives separate and we integrated that way of working. Although we are increasingly encouraged to bring our whole selves to work, it can be intimidating as it requires vulnerability and trusting that if we do so, it will be ok.

I sometimes find myself doubting or questioning: have I been “too much” my self? Have I been too open/honest/natural? A coach would tell me there’s no such thing as being too much yourself as that’s who you are. Yet I can’t help but wonder for fear of being judged or rejected. As we know, our strongest need as human beings is to belong and be part of a tribe, it makes sense that in the workplace the fear of rejection also exists and that’s why we’re doing our best to conform.

Mental health has long been stigmatized, hence our fear of being open about it in the workplace. For instance, many people end up being blamed for their mental health issues, made responsible for causing their own burnouts and more. Of course it’s easier for companies to shift the blame than to look at the hard truth when it comes to toxic cultures or bad managers.

The different faces of secrecy

Secrecy around mental health comes in different ways and for different reasons. For example:

  • The fear of being fired. For many there is a fear of losing our jobs because we will be considered unreliable, weak, a liability and more. The higher up you get, the more scary it is. Of course, most of us depend on our jobs as a main source of income, no one wants a career they spent a lifetime building to crumble before their very eyes. Worse still, being fired has a negative impact on your career and future employability, twice as much reason for people to keep their mental health difficulties a secret.
  • The fear of being demoted or losing responsibilities. Perhaps the employer won’t go so far as firing you, instead you will be demoted or see your responsibilities handed over to someone else. Got a client facing role? Perhaps they stop putting you out there as point of contact. Running or speaking at events? Perhaps you quietly get the message that this isn’t for you any more. Once again, due to a gross misunderstanding of what mental health is and it not being talked about enough in the workplace, employers see it as a liability. Worse still, they see it as potential damage for their own reputation.
  • The fear of being vulnerable. It takes a lot of strength, openness and vulnerability to be open about your mental health in the workplace. Many of those who have opened up talk about being afraid the first time they shared, feeling uncomfortable and not knowing what the reaction would be.Being so vulnerable particularly in the workplace, is terrifying.
  • The fear of attending workshops, learning about it or even showing an interest in the topic. This is a particularly interesting one as we see workplaces starting to organize more talks and offer more information on the topic. Although actually curious, people can be afraid to attend a talk or workshop for fear of being judged by their colleagues. Fear of judgment prevents us from doing what we really want, worse still, we start judging ourselves. This is why it’s important that we continue to break the stigma around mental health so people feel less afraid to participate in talks, events and group discussions.
  • Not mentioning it to anyone and suffering in silence. Probably the most common one: you’re suffering from anxiety, depression or another mental health disorder but you tell no-one. I know people who are in high level roles doing amazing as jobs, and as such they have not disclosed they have a mental health problem for fear of what it will do to their careers, or stigma from colleagues. Rather deal with your problems behind closed doors than dare to admit you are struggling. This can be a huge burden for the person hiding their condition, and those around them.
  • Fear of mentioning you have help and are working with a coach or seeing a psychologist. For a long time therapy was viewed as being “for crazy people” or thought of as straightjackets and mental institutions. No wonder people didn’t feel comfortable asking for help. Luckily things have changed a lot, but it can still be difficult for people to openly say they are in therapy or have professional help for fear of being judged. Although the fact they have help is a positive and likely supports them in their job, it gets swept under the rug with all the other “nasty secrets”.

How to reduce secrecy around mental health at work

For employers

Employers need to create a safe space for people to talk openly about their mental health. This can be anything from informal coffee chats on the topic, to having internal mental health champions who help open the door for others. Likewise, showing compassion and understanding for those with mental health problems sets the tone for others to open up. If people know their colleagues are able to take mental health days, or won’t be judged for having therapy appointments, they will slowly start opening up.

For individuals

As individuals we can start speaking up more, encouraging others to share their experience. Leading by example, we can show there is no shame in attending workshops on mental health or needing help getting through a difficult time. We can be champions in the workplace, whether officially or self-proclaimed (which was often my case). Find role models, follow them and be inspired by their openness. For example the Inside Out Leaderboard publishes a list of Senior Executives that openly talk about mental health, and champion it within their organizations.

Remember, only by working together can we help create the right circumstances for mental health to become an openly accepted and discussed topic. Don’t be afraid as every action counts, even the smallest ones.

Do you want to help end secrecy around mental health in the workplace?

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Currently working in marketing and comms in Amsterdam. Passionate about all things digital, writing, dancing, travelling and much more. Mental health blogger and advocate.

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