By Diana Vissers
There has been a lot of attention on workplace mental health in the last few years — and that’s a great thing. Any attention paid to this important topic provides opportunity for change.
There are many resources and supports for employers and tools to improve policy and practices that relate to workplace mental health, and to improve the psycho-social climate. However, despite the many resources available for employers, there are some workplaces that have not yet adopted mental health promotion and prevention. So, what do you do when the mental health culture is poor in your workplace?
From the employee perspective
If you are an employee who doesn’t have a leadership role, it can be intimidating to recognize that mental health isn’t managed well in your workplace or that the workplace culture is one of silence around the topic of mental health. This can be particularly troubling if you can see that your co-workers are struggling, or if you, yourself are struggling and don’t feel supported through your workplace.
An employee once told me, “We don’t have anyone with mental health issues at my workplace.” This is very unlikely given the statistic that one for five Canadians experience mental health problems.
After some discussion, the employee revealed that if someone showed signs of stress, they left the workplace on “stress leave” and didn’t come back. Unfortunately, this is a common but troubling scenario and suggests that the culture around mental health in that workplace may not be healthy.
What you can do as an employee
For many, this scenario pushes mental health experiences underground and creates fear to seek help. It also makes it difficult to speak out. If that is true for your workplace, and you don’t see signs of change from the organizational leaders, there are things you can do to make change, to improve the culture around mental health. Here are some things you can do to protect yourself and to improve your workplace:
•Own it. Acknowledging the reality in your workplace can create a powerful shift in your perspective. Make a conscious effort to view the goings on in your workplace through a lens of acceptance that things aren’t perfect. You may realize that there are others struggling in your workplace too, and you may start to identify interactions and conversations that aren’t healthy. Remember that everyone is affected by the culture, including you. Is it possible that you have contributed to the culture through your own actions? By owning your role in the workplace culture, you can start to recognize opportunities to contribute differently and change things a little bit at a time.
•Skill up. Managing stress and coping in a negative environment requires skills and practice. Seek out these skills so you can look after your own mental health. Find out if your workplace offers online stress management training or other resources such as meditation through your extended health program or employee assistance program. If you prefer to read, go online and check out the recommended resources through mental health websites like the Canadian Mental Health Association or Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.
•Charge up. Support your own mental health through healthy eating, physical exercise and enough sleep. Physical health care is good medicine for your mental health.
•Build your own support network. Social support is a key ingredient to staying healthy and managing stress. Make a list of people in your life who provide good emotional support. Ask for help. Let them know that you may need some extra help to manage your work environment and be specific about your needs. That means asking for someone to just listen if that’s what you need, or to go with you for a brisk walk daily at lunch, if that’s what is helpful for you.
•Give support. If you are feeling stressed and uncomfortable in your work environment, there may be others who do as well. Watch for opportunities to offer support to coworkers who may be struggling. Ask them if they are okay, and offer to help in a way that makes a difference for them. You can become part of a supportive workplace culture by modelling supportive behaviour.
•Speak up. If you hear others speaking poorly or incorrectly about mental health, offer a neutral and informed comment. Be part of positive conversation that can influence the mental health dialogue in your workplace. Look for opportunities to share information such as asking for education about mental health at your workplace, or joining the occupational health and safety committee and suggesting that mental health be part of their meeting agenda.
Workplace mental health is impacted by many factors. Organizational leaders have a significant role in setting and changing culture, but don’t wait for someone else to make a move to improve the culture in your workplace. You have a role too; and you can make a difference to someone else. Try it, maybe you will be the impetus for change.