Mental Health at Work – Awareness not Awkwardness

It is certainly a good thing mental health awareness is still continuing to grow. In this article, we share why awareness not awkwardness, is the solution we should strive for.

For some it may seem like more and more people seem to have some kind of mental health issue; this may be true, modern living could be causing issues, but it is also highly likely people always had issues but simply kept them hidden. Nowhere is this more likely to be the case than in the workplace.

If ever there was an environment that historically meant mental health was best kept quite it must be the office, the shop floor, the workshop…anywhere at work. For untold numbers the fear of being deemed unfit for work or for a promotion due to a lack of understanding about mental health meant it was kept quiet.

The damage of this was probably as bad for the companies concerned as the individual in that people probably took off more sick days and were less happy and productive.

Looking ahead

So now we are moving away from the bad old days how is mental health dealt with in the workplace? Well, sadly, just because people can talk about it now doesn’t mean what is said is always good.

Below are two common mental health issues that most workplaces will encounter:


As a condition depression can come in waves or periods of very low mood, lethargy and serious thoughts of self-harm and worse. This can have wide ranging effects on a member of staff. For large periods the person could feel fine, be productive and happy so the effect on the business may be minimal.

However, during bouts of depression the person may take time off sick using excuses or telling the truth. They may feel tired and be less productive, but they may also find communication within the team hard and this can lead to further feelings of isolation and negativity.

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For people with more chronic depression day to day tasks can be very hard. This condition can have a profound affect on the person’s ability to function and the team’s ability to work with them.

Anxiety and panic

So often anxiety is confused with stress and being worried. It is critical that anxiety and panic are considered something beyond the normal emotions felt during stressful periods. OR they can be emotions felt by other people during stressful periods but thrown into day to day life for no reason.

Anxiety can mean a team member needs to leave a meeting at short notice, take a walk outside without telling anyone, end a conference call quickly and more. Other staff can see this as negative unless they are helped to understand.

Taking offence

Everyone in a workplace must be very aware of causing offence to others, more so now than ever before. When it comes to mental health this is as true as it is with gender or sexual harassment. Someone with depression could feel quite offended by a younger member of staff, for example, coming in on a Monday and saying “Urg, it’s Monday, I’m so depressed”.

What they mean is they are a bit down, but to someone struggling with depression it may be genuinely offensive. The same can go for using terms like anxiety to describe stress, and bi-polar to describe someone who can have different moods. More on how to address this issue later!

Important point for everyone

There is something very important about dealing with mental health in and out of the workplace and it has to do with how people who are not suffering treat those who are.

Sympathise, don’t empathise.

Quite often the natural reaction of a boss or workmate when faced with someone saying they are struggling with mental health is to try to empathise. An example of this would be someone saying they are really battling with anxiety and the other person saying, “I understand, I get really stressed too, it’s horrible isn’t it?”.

While they often mean well, they are, in fact, trivialising something that is very acute and very intense in order to try and make the person feel better.

Obviously, this can have the opposite affect.  What most sufferers want, if they bring up the subject, is perhaps just some sympathy and understanding. Saying “that’s horrible, can I help in any way?” is far more useful than trying to claim their condition for yourself. This goes for depression, panic and any other issue.

If you are feeling sick having someone say “yes, I’m sick too sometimes” is very little use; having someone say “can I get you some water?” or “shall I speak to the boss for you?” is far more useful and it’s the same with mental health. Here is some great personal experiences with depression and the sort of thing staff could all read to avoid false empathy.

Chill out and cheer up

So often people who are not informed about mental health will wrongly assume that issues are something you can snap yourself out of.

They may say people struggling with depression should cheer up and panic sufferers should try and chill out. These types of comments are obviously bad and people who think like that may need to be taken aside to discuss it.

mental health at work

Image: Unsplash

How to deal with all of this

As mentioned earlier there are ways to manage mental health in the workplace from a sufferers point of view and from the point of view of staff who do not have any issues.


There are several cringe worthy ways mental health can be addressed. For example, getting a whole room full of people together to talk about it and start asking who has problems with mental health is a bad idea. It will put untold pressure on those who may feel they should speak up and it may allow others to become bored and disengaged.

Highlighting to everyone that certain staff members have a mental health issue when they are not around is bad, doing it when they are around is worse. Either way it really isn’t an ideal way to deal with it. Whilst it may seem logical that if everyone knows then everyone will be nice about it, it can be hugely embarrassing and should only be done if asked to do so by the staff member.


Having a clear mental health framework in place is critical. This means creating a document or ebooklet for example, that all new staff members get, and everyone is expected to be aware of.

This should outline company procedure – how staff members who need to speak to someone can and allocate a dedicated person whom, in larger companies, should be trained.  In small businesses where HR departments are not available this may just be a suitable person.

Very small businesses do have different challenges here and there are some useful tips available. It should also outline how staff are expected to behave around those who are struggling, offering guidelines on sympathy over empathy as well as terms that could be offensive.

But it should also have some help in being able to look out for other staff and be aware they may need support as well as a procedure to make someone aware if they feel it necessary.

While large group discussions can be very awkward bringing up mental health in PDPs or annual reviews and highlighting the framework can be very useful. Care can be taken to avoid being accusatory and simply be informative. This way people are more used to speaking about the subject.

Wanting to help staff members is certainly a good thing but it is important to know some people may not want to discuss it or even acknowledge it in the workplace. They may be seeking help professionally and have no desire for it to become part of work life, work can often be an escape.

Staff and team members must be wary of wading in to “help” regardless of how good their intentions may be. This is a very fine tight rope to walk but take time to try to understand or get a feel for the staff member and approach with understanding and wiliness to back off if they say nothing is wrong. This can have two positive effects

  1. They know there is support if they need it and may return to ask for help later
  2. They know help is there but also feel they have the space to deal with it personally and not make it a big deal in the workplace.

In Summary

The big take homes here are simple. Do not make mental health at work a crusade that entire teams and companies are forced to attend large talks and awkward sessions. Make sure everyone is aware of mental health and what it means.

Give staff a clear set of guidelines and behaviours as well as expectations they can read, digest and understand quietly and without a huge ceremony. Have a clear path for people to seek support or bring up a concern and be aware some people may wish to keep it to themselves.


About the Author

Aaron James is a freelance writer from Sussex working in a range of business verticals from eCommerce to Staffing and HR. As well as business writing Aaron also works on content in other areas including mental health, science and marketing. When he isn’t writing Aaron spends his time trying to find a good waves to ride in the South of England…which isn’t very easy!

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