Mental health in the workplace – what should your employer do?

Mental health in the workplace: overcome stress and beat burnout

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of being on a panel at work called “Overcome stress and beat burnout” along with 3 other colleagues who are passionate about this topic. We spoke a lot about what you as an individual can do to look after yourself and there were a lot of great tips. We spoke about boundaries, expectations of yourself, and having honest conversations with your colleagues. But someone also asked “what can the employer do for us?”, and I’ve been thinking about this ever since.

The importance of knowing yourself

The importance of knowing yourself
Knowing yourself – the cliche image

If you’re a long time reader of this blog, you will know that I often talk about the importance of knowing yourself and how this can help you manage your mental health. It’s as much about understanding what situations trigger you and how high your threshold for stress or uncomfortable situations is, as it is about knowing which activities help you feel grounded, calm, centred and give you energy.

Even in the early days of this blog when I was still working my toxic job and on my recovery journey, I realized that it wasn’t only the employer’s responsibility to prevent mental health issues. Despite the fact I really wanted to blame them for the mess I was in. Today I still feel that the responsibility is about 50/50, mostly because there isn’t a one size fits all answer to mental health. At the end of the day we are all different which means we will have different issues – be it depression, anxiety, OCD… and we will all have different reactions in the workplace.

What employers can do to support better mental health at work

Looking back at my previous job and comparing it with other healthier situations, there are a few things I think employers can do.

  1. Organise talks about mental health and wellbeing. I can imagine some of you rolling your eyes at this but the fact is, it sends a message that the company cares enough to start somewhere. It also sends the message that it’s ok and perhaps even important to talk about it. Last of all, it puts the topic on people’s radar and hopefully gets them to start thinking about it.
  2. Promote a healthy work culture i.e. one that isn’t about being constantly available, working and answering emails at all hours of the day and night, self-sacrifice etc. They always say your culture is what you tolerate and this seems particularly relevant when it comes to mental health. If you tolerate people over-working and over-stepping boundaries then this is what it will become. Instead, encourage people to leave work on time and take days off when they need them.
  3. Make employees feel heard. It’s important to acknowledge employees’ issues when they raise them: for example if they say they have too much work, are stressed or have something personal going on. I’ve never felt worse than when trying to explain I was burnt out and getting the impression that nobody cared. You may not have a solution to their problems and that’s fine, but listening is the first step in showing that it’s acceptable to talk about it. Sometimes people don’t even want solutions, all they want is to feel seen and acknowledged.
  4. Train managers. It’s a difficult task being responsible for people at work as ideally it means more than just giving them work, it means helping them with their career and looking out for their wellbeing. Often people are made managers because they are good at their job but don’t necessarily have the people skills and this can become a burden. It’s important to provide managers with proper training: what to do if someone approaches you with a mental health issue, who you can turn to within the organization, courses like mental health first aid that might be available to you… Don’t leave them to figure this out on their own.
  5. Lead by example. It’s so important for the leaders of the organization to set the right example on all of the above. For example not displaying workaholic tendencies or showing that they make time for rest and recovery. Having open and honest conversations with employees, and as a reminder this doesn’t mean you have to get deep and personal, it can be as simple as saying you’re not having a good day.But this level of honesty and openness encourages employees to do the same and speak more openly.
  6. Create psychological safety.The ability to show up as your true authentic self at work and feel safe doing so should not be underrated. If you pause and take a minute to think about it, how many times in your career have you felt able to do this? Or which are the places you have genuinely felt safe? I’m sure you can count them on one hand.Yet if you’ve experienced it then you will understand the benefits. It’s not just the ability to speak up about your mental health (which is of course important), it’s the ability to feel open to speak up, ask for help, admit you don’t know something and essentially be imperfect – at least that’s how I see it. And I personally believe this contributes to better mental health in the workplace.

Mental health in the workplace: a better future?

It’s been encouraging to see that during and after the pandemic a lot more focus has been put on mental health. Conversations are increasing, people are finally realizing the cost of this crisis (figuratively and literally) and it seems a lot more acceptable to seek help. I have noticed a lot more companies trying to provide support to their employees and address the issue. My hope is that in the future we will move away from toxic work cultures and promote a healthier relationship with our jobs. Like I said in the beginning we all have a responsibility, so don’t rely on your employer to fix it for you, be proactive with your mental health. And if things really aren’t working, consider changing companies. Here’s to a future with healthier work cultures and less burnout!

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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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