Encouraging Mental Health Awareness in the Workplace


According to a 2016 survey, “one in six US adults lives with a mental illness (44.7 million).” That’s is a large percentage of the American workforce! It’s a growing concern for businesses in America because, in addition to the emotional toll, it’s been estimated that “depression costs employers $44 billion each year in lost productivity.” And that’s just a statistic representing depression.

This last statistic illustrates that American businesses are failing to adequately address and create mental health awareness in the workplace. And the costs are too high emotionally, financially, personally, and professionally for managers to continue ignoring mental health. That’s why managers should take this month, Mental Health Awareness Month, to address this issue directly.

Here are some techniques managers can use to encourage mental health awareness in their workplace.

Schedule a Meeting

If you want to begin a positive dialogue about mental health with your employees, organize a meeting that everyone can attend. As you lead the meeting, take time to emphasize your understanding and concern for your employees’ well-being. And create a flexible structure that can easily facilitate an open discussion for employees. You also need to clearly present the following information:

  • Company mental health resources
  • Communication channels for employees

But don’t make this meeting too formal; the setting should be personable and as natural as possible. There are lot of ideas online how to accomplish this —my personal favorite is the British “tea and cake” strategy.

Setup Channels of Communication

Your employees need a private and safe way to discuss mental health issues with you. To make it as natural and intuitive as possible, try using an existing communication channel. For example, you can address mental health during your one-on-one meetings with employees.

Once you’ve outlined the communication channel your employees can use to begin a dialogue, give context and set boundaries. Be clear that this channel of communication isn’t for therapy. While you care for your employees and believe they should talk to someone, you’re not a professional mental health expert. You’re not comfortable or qualified to provide that service.  

In short, when a mental illness is affecting productivity, safety, or an employee’s happiness in the workplace, that is when they should use this channel of communication. It’s a safe space to ask for mental health days, express concerns, discuss resources, and brainstorm ideas to make the workplace a safer environment.

Be Observant and Act

As a manager, you must be observant of changes in your staff, office culture, and language.

Observe Employee Behavior

First, you need to observe your employees. Ellen Scott explains this beautifully.

“Look out for changes in your staff. Are they struggling to meet deadlines? Are they behaving differently around their coworkers? Are they eating differently, drinking more, or nipping out for smoking breaks more frequently? If you’re noticing signs that someone’s struggling, check in and see if they’re okay.

I get it – it can feel like it’s not ‘your place’ to reach out and chat to someone who works for you about their mental health. But just offering a chat can be incredibly powerful. If you’re not sure what’s best to recommend, don’t stress. . . . Just have a meeting with the staff member, explain that you care about their wellbeing, tell them you’re here if you need them, and offer them helplines. . . . Just reaching through the awkwardness and silence is a huge deal, and it’ll be hugely appreciated by someone struggling.”

—Ellen Scott, Metro

Observe Office Culture

Along with observing your employees, take a hard look at your office culture. To do this, you need to realize the distinctions between work ethic and work habits. Work ethic and habits can easily be conflated by managers—to the detriment of employee health.

For example, evaluate what kind of behavior you reward in the office. Do you praise employees who work an unbalanced eighty hours a week? Do you publicly applaud the efforts of employees who habitually do all-nighters to complete presentations? Do not encourage or reward work habits that can put an employee’s physical health, happiness, and mental health at stake.

You can also institute policy that encourages healthy work habits like mental health days. In a recent study by Jive Communications, we found that mental health days are a necessity for millennial workers. (Many millennials said that they would go as far as leaving a job or not applying for a job because of mental health day policies.)  

Observe Office Language

The office culture you create is also influenced by your language. Sadly, a lot of the stigmatization of mental health is born through and engorged on inconsiderate language. So if you want your employees to feel safe discussing mental health with you, you need to carefully create a safe environment with your vocabulary. Let’s start with the basics.

Avoid Labels

Do not label someone as “mentally ill.” Instead, say “a person with a mental illness.” It may sound like trivial semantic difference, but it matters. A study shows that saying a person is “mentally ill” can negatively influence “how [people with a mental illness] are tolerated by society.”  

That’s because labels linguistically reduce a person’s complex and rich ontology to a singular mental illness. And we’ve all seen enough John Hughes movies to know that a person is more than just a  “rich kid,” “jock,” or “geek.” Saying a person is “mentally ill” robs them of their complex humanity, so Instead, identify people as a person first. Refer to them as “a person with a mental illness.”

Avoid Exaggeration

Avoiding exaggeration, similar to labels, also requires acute attention to your language. That’s because our society has adopted phrases like “I’m depressed” into the vernacular. It’s far too common for people use mental illness terms to exaggerate common feelings and habits. In this case, people will often say “I’m depressed” when they’re not clinically depressed. What they really mean is that they’re sad.

Using mental illness terms to exaggerate a natural human emotion is problematic for several reasons. Mainly it trivializes and misrepresents mental illness. This attaches a stigma, and it makes it that much easier for people be misinformed and think that mental illness is just “made-up” or “all in your head.”

Because these phrases are so common, you may not even realize that you’re using them. So to help you be more aware, look at this excellent graphic, Words We Should Use vrs. Words We Tend to Use. It illustrates the most common offenders, and it offers alternative words.

Don’t Forget to Act

Not only should you focus on your own language, but as a manager, it’s your job to create a safe environment for all of your employees. This means you’ll need to act by talking to your employees when they use insensitive language.


Finally, managers need to be flexible. Too often the burden falls on the employee to figure out ways to work “normally.” But as that opening statistic illustrates, the current approach isn’t working. One of the best solutions, along with you creating mental health awareness in your workplace, is being flexible.

This means you should meet with employees to brainstorm and create a strategy to make work a better environment for them. Start by asking them what they need.

If you’re not familiar with a particular mental illness, use the Center for Workplace Mental Health. The website includes a list of common mental illnesses, the symptoms, how these symptoms can become agitated in the workplace, and tips for employer to improve the work environment. (Having friends, family members, and coworkers with a handful of the mental illnesses listed on the website, I can say with experience that the tips are on point).

Mental Health Awareness Challenge

Remember the opening statistics? “One in six US adults lives with a mental illness (44.7 million),” and depression alone “costs employers $44 billion each year in lost productivity.” Obviously we need to do a better job encouraging mental health awareness in the workplace.

Let that initiative start with you. This month, begin by scheduling meetings and building channels to create mental health awareness and discussions. And then follow that up with observations and actions.

By following these steps, you can make the workplace a safer, happier, and more productive space for all of your employees.