Mental Illness; Is It Too Taboo for the Work Place?

How do we in the diversity field handle the subject of mental illness? In the past (and present unfortunately) companies would sweep this subject under the rug. They didn’t want to know if someone on their team had a mental health issue. But we live in a time where 1 in 6 are medicated to treat some type of mental ailment. So as an organization and as diversity leaders, we need to change this hush-hush logic.

It’s 2017 and some companies still act as though someone who has depression or anxiety is damaged goods. As though their job performance will be bad or they won’t be able to handle the stress. That they may bring the morale of their peers down with them.  According to Boston University Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, it seems there is almost a coin toss chance whether a person with mental health problems work is affected, and of those that are affected, it’s most likely due to them not being on medication or not having reasonable accommodations. Meaning they are more affected by their surroundings. It is organizations way of thinking that makes it difficult for these individuals to open up. So how can we intervene and turn an awkward subject into a positive learning experience?

Step 1: Talk the Talk

We have to normalize the subject. The more we talk about it in a positive way, the less of a burden others will feel. Anyone who has anxiety already feels alone in their illness. Those with depression already feel disconnected from their peers, and people with ADD or ADHD feel like they aren’t normal. So we have to show them that they are normal and they aren’t alone. Stress this to everyone in the organization. Use statistics and facts to teach the importance of mental health like according to Mental Health America, more than not, an employee will not seek treatment for something like depression out of fear that it will affect their job and will not remain confidential. Prove to the employees that this isn’t true. Also, according to the CDC, only 25% of adults with a mental illness believe that people are caring or sympathetic to mental health issues, even though the same report shows that 57% of people believe the general public to be caring and sympathetic, which shows the negative mindset of those suffering.

As diversity professionals we need to be the point of information. We have to research and find ways to talk about the hard subjects that no one else wants to talk about. Regardless of how much research you have done thus far, just talking about mental illness and how important those who have it are to the organization can be a great way to loosen up the office. This is not like when controversial events happen and action needs to be taken immediately and head on. Controversial events come and go. Mental health is always there.

Open up the discussion with articles or threads that went viral about the subject like this one about a woman who let her fellow peers know about her taking a mental health day, and her CEO commending her for it. Create a safe and supportive dialogue. Employees will feed off of that energy and sense that they can start to open up. At first, it will seem as if no one is noticing.

But be patient.

Getting people to open up is not an easy task. Once they do, however, maintain that momentum. Keep it confidential unless otherwise stated but maintain that open conversation at the same time. This should be an ongoing topic. So don’t let it fade out.

Step 2: Lead and They Will Follow

After you are able to get the energy of the subject transformed from a negative to a positive, (which is time consuming so don’t feel like you need to put any time restraints on it) take the opportunity to host seminars and training classes on the subject. It is vital to get as much information out there as possible. When people start to see and feel that mental health is important and nothing to shy away from, they will be more open about someone they know or maybe even what they are personally going through. That will be your break- through moment (and we all love those!)

Although keeping the conversation going is important, it is also essential to listen. Listen to what people are saying or not saying. You can’t teach about diversity if you don’t understand what the staff already knows. You need to also pay attention to how the organization itself reacts to the subject of mental health. The personnel will only take to all this effort if they feel the organization isn’t going to look down or think less of them. Ask questions to the staff. Find out if they feel the organization supports them or not. If so, why? If not, what could the company do to show it cares for the staff’s well-being? Collect the data and take it to the organizational leaders.

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At this point, it’s imperative to talk to all the leaders of the organization and get on the same page as to what is going on. Make sure they understand the value those with mental issues bring to the table like creativity or great organization skills. Highlight the strengths and make sure the influential people of the organization all understand the statistics of those suffering from mental health issues.  Then, make sure they understand how the employees feel, whether it’s supported or not. Make a plan from there to either fix the problem, if there is one, or to add to the current solutions. The organization should always be growing and adjusting for the better.

Step 3: Keep on the Lookout

Just because the statistic of 1 in 5 are medicated is out there, doesn’t mean the figure isn’t actually higher when you take into consideration those who are not on medication. In fact roughly 56% of employees go un-diagnosed according to Mental Health America. We as the diversity leaders and professionals must be on our toes and on the lookout for anyone’s change in personality or work performance.

Spotting someone possibly going through something can allow us to get them the help they need. Look for someone who may be recently withdrawn, showing a lack of care in their work or appearance. We need to be able to notice mood shifts or emotional outbursts. If you notice anyone who might be going through something, talking to them one-on-one and showing support can help. Make sure you have tons of resources and recommendations of experts in the mental health field to talk to them. The goal is to confidentially get that un-diagnosed percentage lowered within the workplace.

Let the organization know that taking a mental health day is good and necessary sometimes in life. Taking a day to de-stress is nothing to be ashamed of. It should be encouraged, and more CEO’s are taking steps to show their support like Richard Branson of Virgin with his blog post about one of his employees of whom he is proud of. This way, the employee come back with a clear mind, good attitude, and higher work performance. Be sure that when hosting training classes or opening the dialogue, everyone understands the difference between taking a mental health day and a sick day and that they are also not abusing either of these.

Keep in Mind

The goal is inclusion here. Everyone in the organization is on a team, and that needs to be reiterated to them. Mental health goes far deeper than just an organizational issue. It’s also part of the American Disabilities Act which can cause lawful issues if the organization discriminates or makes anyone feel disconnected based on their mental state. So, how can we utilize someone and make them feel more included? Take a staff member who has OCD, put them in a position where they can make that illness work for the organization, like a role that requires intense focus or organization. Accounting might be a good example. They will get a sense of pride from their work, and the company can profit as well.

Make sure that when it comes to promotions or any other positive changes in the office, that people with mental health issues aren’t being looked over simply because of those issues. Not only does this go back to the legal issues, but our job is creating a safe environment where everyone feels useful to the organization.

It is also worth noting that sometimes work can be stressful.  This can cause people to become anxious or depressed if things don’t go smoothly. Letting everyone in the organization know that they can talk out their frustrations is vital. It also shows those with the mental health disability that even the “normal” people go through waves of mental strain at times. Use this as an advantage to build a team.

In Conclusion

Mental health is important. Taking care of our bodies is seen as important, and the mind is and should be included in that. Having employees take mental health days shows that the organization cares about the well-being of their staff.

Don’t forget that opening this kind of dialogue is not an easy task. It takes time and persistence. It also wouldn’t be possible without you, the diversity leaders. Creating a stress free (as much as possible) environment is one of the things we are here for. So get the conversations started. Start your own personal research and always reach out to those who might need your help. We are all in this together and that is a very significant message to get out there.


The Society for Diversity is the largest organization for diversity and inclusion in the US. With members in 43 states, The Society for Diversity represents a highly specialized association of Fortune 500, nonprofit, government and education professionals throughout the U.S. The Society for Diversity is also the parent company of the Institute for Diversity Certification (IDC), which designates qualification credentials to diversity experts through their professional diversity certification program. By teaching diversity professionals and executives how to drive real-world results, the IDC helps individuals advance their careers as well as have a greater overall impact on diversity & inclusion within their organizations. Together, we can standardize and elevate the field. 

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