May 10, 2024

How (and why) to talk about your mental health at work

By Joy Blenman and Sun Life Staff

Talking about your mental health at work is potentially uncomfortable. Yet it can be worth doing anyway. Here’s why (and how) to talk about it.

In a workplace that values mental health, employees can give their best. Yet many employees don’t feel confident talking about their mental health issues with their employer. They avoid the topic for fear of negative repercussions on their career advancement.

As a result, many workers suffer in silence. A study conducted in 2021 painted a bleak picture:

  • 25% of Canadians surveyed identify work as the number one source of stress,
  • 35% of workers report being burned out and
  • 5 million people say they need help for their mental health.

“To protect employees’ mental health and well-being, mental health must be a priority for businesses,” says Valérie Legendre, Director of Mental Health at Sun Life. “An organization’s managers and senior leaders need to prioritize mental health in their culture and business strategy.”

Legendre noted that they can do this by:

  • fighting stigma,
  • providing coverage for mental healthcare that meets the recommendations of the Canadian Psychological Association,
  • developing a communication plan that actively reminds employees of the resources available to them and
  • training managers to detect signs of psychological distress in their employees.

How do you talk about your mental health with your employer?

Want to talk to your employer about mental health but are concerned about the reaction you might get? Legendre suggests you first familiarize yourself with your company’s mental health policies. This will give you a sense of the resources in place to help you.

Anxious about having this type of conversation? Legendre suggests that you fully prepare for it and put in place the right strategies.

  1. Prepare for your meeting with the help of a person you trust or a mental health professional.
  2. Find a location where you can maintain full confidentiality. In the age of open-plan workspaces, reserve a private place to protect your personal information.
  3. Give yourself a reasonable amount of time to avoid feeling rushed.
  4. Tell your manager about your concerns at the beginning of the meeting. People often feel vulnerable and worry about getting emotional. This will give you the support you need to facilitate the conversation. If needed, ask a human resources professional from your organization to accompany you.
  5. It’s up to you to decide what you want to share. You are not obliged to go into great detail. Your goal is to get support for your professional life to improve your well-being in the workplace.

How can managers support their employees’ mental health?

Nitika Rewari is the Program Manager for Workplace Mental Health at the Mental Health Commission of Canada. She says many managers want to support their employees but don’t know how. “Sometimes, it’s the lack of knowing what the right thing to do is, or the lack of a process in place that hinders them from doing anything at all,” says Rewari.

To help organizations better support their employees, Rewari helped create the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (the Standard). This tool helps employers create policies and work environments that foster their employees’ mental health.

The Standard was launched in 2013. It has been implemented across Canada by numerous organizations (including Sun Life). “It highlighted the importance of protecting mental health in the workplace like never before,” says Legendre.

The Standard is based on extensive scientific, legal and social research. It provides employees with concrete examples of how a workplace can meet employees’ psychological needs. “The Standard allows businesses to put checks and balances in the workplace by way of policies and procedures. If there are issues, supervisors know what to do because they have guidelines,” says Rewari.

Training programs are also available to managers and employees. According to Legendre, training for managers is important. “It gives you the opportunity to increase your confidence, share experiences among colleagues and promote mental health within your workplace.”

Organizations that wish to implement the Standard can download a copy for free from the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s website.

Four tips for improving psychological well-being at work and at home

These healthy habits are in addition to the programs offered by your employer:

  1. Spend time with people you enjoy being around.
  2. Be physically active (beyond the work-related physical activity of some jobs).
  3. Eat a healthy diet, limiting ultra-processed foods.
  4. Practise mindfulness techniques such as meditation.

A mental health professional can give you expert, personalized insights based on your situation. Check with your workplace health and benefits provider to find out what your plan offers.

Need to talk to someone?

Find a mental health professional with Lumino’s Find a healthcare provider tool.

This article is meant to provide general information only. It’s not professional medical advice, or a substitute for professional healthcare advice.

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