Talking About Mental Health in the Workplace

Allison Grinberg-Funes
Aug 19 · 10 min read

“Leave the drama at the door. As soon as you walk through that doorway, your personal problems no longer affect you.”

This is the advice I was given at the beginning of my career. Whatever is going on in your personal life, didn’t matter, and should in no way impact your work.

Years later, after suffering from anxiety, OCD, an eating disorder, depression and experiencing things like being a caretaker for a family member with cancer, going through a breakup of a serious relationship, moving cities, etc. — this advice didn’t cut it anymore. Hiding my personal problems at work was killing me. It took me years to realize that communicating about what my experiences had been at work would have made things a whole lot better for both myself, my manager, and my team.

At one company, I was so stressed with my sales role, that I was continually dealing with vertigo, causing me to miss work. On the days when I would come in, I occasionally would stumble and fall. I had to get an MRI because my doctor suspected something may be wrong with my brain. While that may have been the case, thankfully it wasn’t a tumor. I was shouldering all of my stress alone and the weight had me trudging through hip-deep mud; I wasn’t going anywhere. In retrospect, I didn’t know I could ask for help. I didn’t know how to ask for help with my sales quota or how to ask for help with anxiety-induced focus issues and project management. To me, seeking help for these things wasn’t an option.

I left my job. And in the end, it was the right thing for me (because y’all, I love people but I am not meant to be in sales). Looking back, I wish I would’ve known there were other options.

By the way — when I quit my job — the vertigo discontinued. It’s occurred a few times times in the years since but is basically a non-issue now.

I recently had the honor — and that isn’t hyperbole — of moderating a panel at Toast, an all-in-one-point-of-sale and restaurant management software company in Boston, Mass. With about 2,000 employees in total, Toast has the resources to provide its employees with Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) to support employees who have different interests, passions, and identities. Recently the company made the decision to start an Employee Resource Group for mental health advocacy, aptly named “ComplexCarbs”. All of the Toast ERGs are on brand in their names and entitled with a quirky name that’s somewhat bread-related.

The first event the ComplexCarbs group wanted to have was a speaker series panel to discuss mental health issues and challenges and how individuals have dealt with issues and overcome them specifically as an employee. There were six employees who all volunteered their time (one who was remote) and offered to be in the spotlight so that their colleagues and teammates could learn about their experiences. There were 50 people in attendance in-person and 25 folks signed in virtually. Stigma be damned! The attendance alone (on a Summer Friday, no less) proved that people were hungry for this topic to be discussed.

While I won’t share specific details of the conversation in an effort to protect the confidentiality of these individuals, I wanted to review a few general pillars of our conversation. If you are curious about how to talk about mental health in the workplace, my hope is that this article will be a good jumping off point. That being said, I am not a mental health professional, so if you feel that you need help, please seek it with a licensed social worker, therapist, psychiatrist, etc.

What Resources Are Available that You’ve Used?

If you’ve ever suffered from a mental health issue, you may have heard the term “tool box,” which is essentially the word for resources you find available to you. Different people will have different resources in their toolbox that will help with different challenges, at different times, in different situations. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the questions, “What should I have in my toolbox?” The answer is almost always “It depends,” because each individual’s needs, regardless of diagnosis, are different.

Therapy

One such tool available to folks is therapy. Talk about stigma. If you think that there’s stigma around talking about mental health in the workplace, then you may guess at the stigma surrounding therapy — but guess again. With nearly half of the U.S. population investing in their mental health with therapy, only 30% of those that see a therapist are worried about others finding out. And while 30% may seem like a high number, it’s nowhere near as high as it was decades ago. Studies show that Millennials and Gen X’ers are more likely to go to therapy than older generations.

Not all health insurance policies cover mental and behavioral health, but knowing to look into it, is important. For many employees thinking about health insurance, when they consider their policy, they think of annual appointments, tests, bloodwork. Seldom do people consider they have the option of seeking mental health assistance via their provider.

Not all providers cover mental health visits in full, but many offer to reimburse you for money spent. Nearly all have a directory of providers within range of any zip code that are either in-network or out-of-network. Managers and human resources groups can offer employees the reminder that this resource is available to them. Toast also mentioned that they offer their employees a TalkSpace membership for 6 weeks free (then continued at a discounted rate through the current EAP) so that their employees can have support from a licensed professional in the interim while they seek in-person counseling.

Prescriptions

Knowing that you may need more help to aid mental health than just talk or behavioral counseling isn’t an easy pill to swallow (pun intended). Sometimes, getting help from a medication to aid in your everyday life, in addition to therapy, can offer a person a substantial amount of relief. But there’s a lot of stigma around medication. But you don’t seem to need that, a colleague, friend, or family member may say. (Setting boundaries could be an entirely other article in of itself). We don’t tend to pill-shame people with physical ailments who take medication. Do we tell people with blood clotting disorders not to take blood thinners? Do we suggest to diabetics that perhaps, they don’t need to regulate their insulin after all?

No. We don’t. Because it isn’t our place. It’s between the individual and their doctor. During the panel discussion, we talked about self-advocacy, as well as being open and honest about medication transitions. It’s possible that an employee may not seem themselves because they are experiencing medication withdrawal or side effects from transition. In fact, I’ve had to tell an employer before that due to a medication transition, I was moving a little slower due to lack of sleep.

Being open about what’s going on with medication can make a huge difference. Taking a pill doesn’t have an immediate fix, as many assume. In fact, some people may take upwards of six weeks to regulate to a new medication. The top things we emphasized regarding this? Empathy, patience, and support. If you are a manager or team lead, ask your teammate what you can do to be supportive; ask what they need help with to continue doing their work; ask if they feel they have all the resources they need.

People in your Corner to Listen

Of course, a manager listening to an employee about an issue is a fantastic demonstration of support, but in being mindful of the manager and that person’s own mental health, there are other groups of people who can also lend a supportive ear to colleagues struggling. Some employers (like Toast) offer employee resource groups. If an employee resource group doesn’t exist, other groups or clubs may be available. Regardless of whether it’s a cultural group or company softball league, having a group of people who are supportive is key.

There are also options for group support outside a company. Cities, towns, and hospitals offer support groups pertaining to separate issues at often little-to-no cost. If you’re a manager who recognizes that a teammate may benefit from group support but you know there aren’t internal resources at your company currently, you may suggest that your teammate look into something provided locally.

One-on-One Communication

The hardest topic by far was talking about how to talk to managers or direct reports about specific (or even general) mental health concerns. How is an employee supposed to know when it’s the right time to bring something up with their manager? A few panelists shared that they’ve talked to their managers later than they wished they would have, when a problem had snow-balled and recommended that an issue be discussed as soon as possible, so that a manager understands the big picture and is able to support you. Here are some phrases that you may be able to use in a 1:1 meeting as an employee:

I’ve been having trouble with X and I wanted you to know it’s something I’m experiencing. I’m getting help and will let you know if I need extra support from you.

I’ve been struggling with Y and it’s affecting my work. Can you help me brainstorm some ways to approach what I’m experiencing?

I’ve recently been experiencing Z and need to take a mental health day to rest. I’ll be back Monday rested and wanted you to know what I’m going through. I’m not disinterested in work but have to prioritize my mental health for long term success.

I’ve been aware of some trouble I’m having lately and it’s beginning to impact my work. Can we discuss how I could approach the challenge?

Of course, the hardest part about these situations is that managers won’t always have the benefit of having a direct report who mindfully identifies an issue they’re dealing with and 2) communicates they need help. Often times employees will choose to remain quiet about what they’re going through in one way or another. So then, how is a manager supposed to help if they don’t understand what’s wrong?

Listening is key here. Here is a suggestion of a conversation starter managers may use to kick off a conversation in a 1:1:

I’ve noticed that you seem to have been struggling with some personal issues lately. You’re under no obligation to divulge any information to me, but please know that if you’d like to share, I’m available for you to be a support.

Demonstrating that you’re willing to lend an ear and hear what’s been going on in someone’s life is a way to support them, even if they don’t take you up on it. Knowing it is an option can be helpful. Another way to show support is to open up to a teammate about a personal struggle of your own. Now, this is something that you’d have to read the room for, as some people could read this sharing as patronizing, but by in large, in our panel discussion, we discussed how practicing vulnerability can help to make teammates feel more comfortable and to help build a level of trust. You could say something along the lines of:

A few years back, I was going through X and struggling with Y. It was a hard time for X reasons and I wanted to share it with you to let you know it’s perfectly normal to be impacted by personal things in the workplace. I was lucky to have the support of A, B, and C, and regardless of whether you’re experiencing anything now, please know that I’m here to support you now or in the future.

If you’re a team leader looking to set an example, this is also the type of conversation that you can initiate at a team outing or lunch.

Looking Back to Look Forward

At the end of the panel, the final question I asked the panelists, was to offer words of advice or insight, that they wished they would’ve heard at the beginning of their careers. The advice was poignant and insightful and I’m sorry to say that I was too focused on actively listening than to write down any quotes to share here; actually, no — I’m not sorry that I was listening. In the end, the common denominators in each panelist’s words of wisdom were:

There is no shame in suffering from mental health illness.

Ask for help sooner rather than later.

It’s OK to not be OK.

I think back to when I was first diagnosed in 2001 with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and how, when I asked about communicating it to my friends, my parents warned me: there was stigma out there and if I shared, I would face it. And they were right. Over the last 18 years, I’ve made a point to share about my struggles with OCD: the hours and years of therapy, the myriad of medications, the bouts of depression, anxiety, and other side effects that were a byproduct of the disorder (e.g. my eating disorder). I have faced a good amount of stigma and judgment and I doubt that’s far from being flung my way, but that’s why I continue to discuss it and help to share the stories of others as well. While we acknowledged that these illnesses have made our lives difficult, they also shined a light on things we wouldn’t otherwise have noticed; they’ve made us empathetic and mindful, two qualities that serve us well in our personal and professional lives.

The greatest opponent of stigma will be education. If you’ve gotten this far in the article, thank you and please share amongst your colleagues. Bring your entire self to work — in the end, it’s worth it.

Allison Grinberg-Funes

Written by

Writer. Connector. Idea Catalyst. Avid reader, thinker, and loud laugher. Coffee addict. Professional go-getter. Views/opinions=my own. She/her. Boston, MA.

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