Talking openly and authentically about real mental health struggles transforms culture

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“The more transparent and open I was, the more it gave my mates permission to tell me their stories,”
- Justin Geange, ‘R U OK?’ Ambassador.

There’s no protocol or instructional video on how to do this so let’s start with things we can control.

While there is no guide or agreed protocol for ensuring or protecting mental health in the workplace, doing whatever is meaningfully within your control to support your employees’ wellbeing should remain a top-level consideration.  Before we explore how we might be able to promote and foster more positive mental health through the creation of a more open and transparent culture, let’s take a moment to review the data about the emerging mental health profile in Australian society and some global trends.

The statistics are alarming

One in five Australians, aged between 16 -85 experience a mental health condition each year. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that more than 800,000 people die by suicide each year - that is one person every 40 seconds.  Each death, each attempt, leaves a devastating impact on families, communities and workplaces. Further, the WHO also has published data suggesting depression being the number one illness globally. According to a recent survey conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission they discovered that a quarter of 5,000 surveyed employees, indicated that they took time off each year for stress-related reasons.  Even if this translates a little differently when extrapolated across the varied and diverse workforce, it remains a sobering message.

Our focus this year

Given the emerging and alarming burden of mental health disease globally, and here in Australia, we want to shift our focus from hand-wringing and feeling powerless to doing more things constructively to turn this trend around - things in essence that are within our control. Way too much of this enormous global problem that we are only now beginning to quantify and understand feels as though it is beyond us as individuals or small collectives of impassioned and like-minded people to tackle, little lone solve.  Where on earth do I as a solo manager working in an insignificant organisation tucked away on the underside of this planet, even know where to start?   Invoking the wisdom of Stephen Covey, he’d get us to focus less on our circle of concern (the stuff well and truly beyond our control but can nonetheless have us feel powerless or catastrophise a complex situation) and focus more on our circle of influence, or even better, circle of control – where we can do a whole lot of meaningful things to improve a local situation.  Sometimes this local work in our own back yards has fascinating and powerful ways of shaping the bigger problem and debate.  That’s a story for another day perhaps.

What we say matters and how we say it matters more

We believe that open dialogue and transparency around mental health fosters healthier and stronger relationships in the workplace which in turn helps employees to feel engaged and valued. Our deep understanding about people dynamics in workplaces has taught us the importance of prioritising greater transparency and general openness about mental health in order to reduce stigma and build high-trust environments where vulnerability can be expressed, and mental wellbeing can be talked about freely.

Raising mental health concerns in the workplace is not easy for anyone

Fundamentally employers have an obligation to support and accommodate employees experiencing a mental health condition that may be impacting them in the workplace or require certain concessions or adjustments to be made. This is not a nice-to-have, but is a tenet underpinned by extensive legislation and regulation at both a state and federal level.

Beyond these regulated and immutable obligations all employers must honour, it is much more in the cultural dynamic and prosaic interpersonal exchanges that determine the success or otherwise in creating a workplace environment that is experienced as supportive, open and transparent about mental health and wellbeing.  

So, if you want to focus your energies and those of your people leaders on how to build greater transparency and permission to talk openly about mental health, there are some simple things that you can do to encourage this. 

  • Check-in on your team members or direct reports from time to time with simple questions like ‘Are you okay?’ or ‘How are you travelling?’.
  • Talk about observations you have made, or learnings you have gained through experience of dealing with similar situations. Focus on positive stories that normalise these workplace dynamics.
  • Respectfully shut down gossip about work colleagues who are known to have, or even suspected of having a mental health problem in their lives that might be impacting their ability to work. Salacious speculation and assumptions are rarely accurate or helpful and should be assertively discouraged.
  • Be mindful of what you say in shared work spaces versus in the privacy of a meeting behind closed doors as people feeling vulnerable are acutely sensitive to embarrassment or potential unintended humiliation.
  • Share your own struggles or vulnerabilities about times in the past and how you transitioned through those tough times. Obviously, this requires mutual trust and cannot be forced, but demonstrates humility and can be powerful to others in demonstrating your empathy with their struggles and that mental health is not about hierarchy.

What can I do as a manager?

Essentially, it is all about being deeply tuned-in to your people and role modelling exactly how you would like to be treated if you, or one of your family members, were to experience a similar mental health struggle that was impacting your (or their) ability to work.  Sometimes, flexible work policies can help circuit break an acutely difficult time. For example, if an employee has acute stress associated with an elder care or child care issue, explore options for them to work from home or remotely either in the short term or over a longer time frame depending on circumstance. 

If the situation is likely to take a lot longer to work through, it may be worth exploring options such as flexible work arrangements. The ability to purchase leave is now relatively common.  This is where the employee can purchase some additional weeks’ leave each year to give them the flexibility to be able to readily access time to deal with the longer-term issue impacting their mental health or ability to focus and perform at work.  You might think, ‘we already do all this’.  Great, you’re already ahead of the pack.  However, there is always more ways and innovative practices and meaningful micro interpersonal moments to engender greater openness, connectedness and a sense of belonging within team to shape your culture.  Challenge yourself, what is my or our next stretch goal to build on the work we have already done?  Are we still comfort-zoning it too much if we are really honest with ourselves?  It’s still not as good as it could be, so what next?

It’s always going to be a balance

Much of the art of creating a transparent work environment, where staff feel comfortable to raise issues of concern about theirs or even their colleague’s mental health is about balancing the requirements of the business to-get-stuff-done with actively creating a space and context where staff feel safe to be honest and authentic about their feelings or coping abilities - good and bad - so proportionate and sensible measures can be taken to navigate through the tougher times when they arise.  Through taking this intentional approach to creating an honest and non-judgmental work environment you will be rewarded by greater engagement, loyalty and personal satisfaction that you’ve helped team members, in a time of struggle, get through a tough patch, something you may eventually forget, but almost certainly something they will not.


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