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Why talk about mental health at work?

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Why talk about mental health at work?

Everyone has to take care of their mental health and nearly half of all New Zealanders are likely to experience a mental illness at some point in their lives, with depression and anxiety being the most common.

Mental health problems can affect anyone at any time, so it’s critical that employers make talking about mental health a normal and safe thing to do in the workplace.

In an ideal world, all employers would talk openly about mental health and wellbeing. They would build an inclusive and diverse workplace environment where everyone is treated equally, afforded the same opportunities and shown respect.

They wouldn’t shy away from employing someone with experience of mental distress. They would support any employee who became unwell, allowing them time off if needed, facilitating a staged return to work and managing their workload once back on board.

But would you tell your employer (or a potential employer) if you live with a mental illness? It’s a tricky, personal question and there’s no right or wrong answer. You might already work for the ideal employer, but if not, it’s natural to feel uneasy. 

What’s stopping us?

Many employers and employees are reluctant to talk about mental health. It can feel too personal, and both may be nervous about saying the wrong thing, or not having the answers or knowledge.

The decision to discuss mental health in the workplace can’t be taken lightly. You have weigh up the risk of an adverse versus a positive reaction.

You may have concerns about how your manager will react or whether they’ll still think you’re capable of doing your job. You may even feel worried that it won’t stay confidential and that’ll you’ll be the subject of water cooler conversations. And, even though it is against the law to treat people differently in the workplace because of mental illness, it can and does happen.

However, it’s important to remember that many employers will be a fantastic support and will work alongside you to help you recover. Full and early disclosure could give you the best chance of this happening.  

The benefits of talking about mental health at work

For employers, there are huge benefits to creating a workplace culture where it’s okay to talk about mental health. Opening up a dialogue about mental health in the workplace can result in:

• More positive mental health (less depression, stress, burnout)

• Better physical health

• Reduced absenteeism

• Lower staff turnover

• Improved work performance, motivation, commitment and energy

• Less tension and conflict, more connectedness, kindness, tolerance and patience

New resources to help managers have successful conversations

Talking about mental health and wellbeing in the workplace is the focus of Open Minds, a Like Minds, Like Mine Community Partnership Fund project.

The long-term outcome of the project is to enable employers to develop workplace policies, structures and cultures that are more inclusive and supportive of people with experience of mental illness.

The Mental Health Foundation have teamed up with the Attitude Group to produce a series of video and electronic resources which will equip line managers with the skills and confidence to have successful conversations about mental health with their employees.

These resources are designed to be a positive step in the direction of creating workplaces that are responsive to all people and their mental health needs. They will help remove some of the unhelpful fears managers may feel around employing people who live with a mental illness.