Mental Health Issues: Still an Invisible Illness in the Workplace?

Image by Ulrike Mai from Pixabay

How would you describe a modern workplace?

I would say that in contrast to the standard 9-to-5 workdays with assigned tasks and work desks, the modern workplace comes through as this upbeat, inspiring, flexible, fun, and rather casual environment. Just scrolling though some images of a modern office, such as at Google or Facebook, you get the entrepreneurial vibe, the feeling that these spaces encourage people to collaborate, create and thrive. In this modern workplace, there is more balance with personal life, you can sometimes work from home and attend your ZOOM meetings in sweatpants. You are drawn back to the office as well though, as there is a pool table there, nice lounge spaces—plus, you can bring your pet along.

Although this may seem like a somewhat exaggerated picture, I think we can generally agree that modern workplaces strive towards a more humane, personalized, inclusive and engaging environment. Paradoxically though, even such environments still tend to struggle with an open, destigmatizing and inclusive approach to the topic of mental health.

As a matter of fact, mental health issues are very common. According to the WHO data, one in four people in the world is affected by mental health issues at some point in their lives. Moreover, the WHO considers depression to be one of the leading causes of disability worldwide, which, coupled with anxiety, costs about 1 trillion dollars per year in reduced productivity. Naturally, mental health issues don´t stay at home and it would be ignorant not to assume the same prevalence and influence of mental health issues in the workplace. A recent ‘Mental Health at Work’ report by Mind Share and partners indicated that 60% of respondents in the US have experienced negative mental health symptoms, yet, for many, talking about these struggles at work feels neither comfortable nor normal. Estimates of mental health of the workforce in Europe suggest that one or two in five employees might live with mental health problems at a given time. These numbers imply that each of us has a fairly high probability of facing mental health problems sooner or later, and that we have definitely shared an office, been in a meeting or had lunch with someone, who has been struggling with mental ill-being at the time… How often do we speak about our own or others’ psychological health though? How often do you hear any colleague admitting to taking time off to support their mental health, and not just for ’personal reasons´? Are we as comfortable to admit leaving for an appointment to the psychotherapist, as we are candid about our dentist arrangements?

Why then, in spite of such prevalence of mental health issues and genuine need for open dialogue about them, do mental health issues remain a somewhat invisible disease in the modern workplace?

Naturally, there is a long tradition of stigmatization of mental illness, which we still have to deal with. Although in general we have moved quite far away from demonizing mental illnesses or treating mentally ill as criminals, the perception and treatment of mental health problems is not nearly as normalized and transparent as our approach to physical health.

As such, we need to explicitly normalize mental health issues, increase transparency about it and continuously invest in mental health support efforts. Each of us can start from more openly acknowledging our own struggles, and more attentively noticing and inquiring about the wellbeing of others. Management should lead by example and create an open and inclusive culture which values mental health and supportively validates the lack of it. ‘It is OK to have mental health struggles, and how can we support you?’ could be our approach in a nutshell.

Moreover, we might all be better at recognizing that ‘it is OK to have mental health struggles along being a high achiever, a productive employee, and a thriving individual’.

Thinking specifically about the modern work environment, I get the feeling that this upbeat, inspiring, flexible, and fun world of work is actually fairly exclusionary towards the darker shades of reality… The occasionally stressed, depressed or anxious employees wouldn´t fit in the lounge area of a coworking space, would they?! Usually, the inspirational quote on the wall of such an office or on the office mugs will encourage you to ‘dream big´, achieve, develop and ‘live your life to the fullest´, rather than acknowledge your anxiety, or normalize feeling down from time to time as you work towards your goals. Although more humane, personalized and inclusive, the modern work culture is still largely about productivity, achievement and personal success. And we might not be used to the idea of an ‘anxious achiever’ yet…

’Anxious Achiever’ is the name of a recently launched Harvard Business Review podcast by author and founder of Women Online, Morra Aarons-Mele. The podcast aims to help rethink the notions of mental wellbeing and ill-being at work, normalizing mental health struggles also among high-achieving individuals. Indeed, if the world’s most decorated Olympian Michael Phelps has openly admitted to mental health struggles, why would we continue to stigmatize mental issues as a flaw or weakness?

All in all, we do need to support each other’s wellbeing more, we also need to collectively develop our mental health literacy and wellbeing skills, we need to decrease stress levels at the workplaces… and we need to recognize that as roughly 1 in 4 of us—including highly successful individuals—have their mental health battles, being good, strong, effective or successful ´comes in many forms and does not require psychological purity or perfection´…

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