Let’s Talk About Mental Health in the Workplace

No matter what you do for a living, it is common knowledge that you need to be in good health in order to do your job properly. Many people who have chronic health conditions struggle to maintain jobs that they can attend regularly. This is specifically true for people who struggle with mental illness.

In many cases, physical health conditions are understood by people in power, such as administrators, directors, supervisors or bosses, and are handled in a way that employees can manage their health and their work to the company’s liking. This isn’t the case for everyone, but when it comes to health, physical disabilities or illnesses that can be seen and understood are much more widely accepted than mental health disorders and illnesses.

One in five Americans experiences mental illness in any given year. That means that there’s a very good chance that the person sitting in the cubicle next to you has some sort of diagnosis. Yet, unlike your colleague who has diabetes and needs to skip the donuts in the conference room and excuse herself to take shots of insulin during the day, you may know nothing about what the person next to you is dealing with. He or she may have an anxiety disorder and fears having a panic attack at work. There may be someone who is secretly battling an eating disorder and goes to great lengths to appear that he or she is eating in group settings or covertly is sneaking off to the bathroom after meals.

You may have colleagues who seem unmotivated who are battling with depression and struggling just to get out of bed in the morning, let alone get through the workday. Some people may be dealing with substance use disorders, such as alcoholism or drug addiction; they might either seem like they don’t care by coming in hungover or they might seem super motivated and secretly working high. The fact of the matter is, no one knows what demons the person next to them is battling.

Because mental illnesses are invisible diseases, they are harder to detect and even harder to explain to someone who doesn’t struggle with a mental illness. 

Depression and anxiety are two of many types of mental illnesses that exist and could be affecting people with whom you work. The problem is that in today’s society it is taboo to talk about mental illness. Your coworkers who are going through a rough time may be under guidance from superiors not to share their afflictions. Or they may be afraid of what people will think of them. Many people fear that their jobs may be in jeopardy if word gets out about their mental illness.

The fact of the matter is that everyone goes through rough patches. You never know what someone else is going through, you only know what you see or think you see. As human beings, we need to learn to be more empathetic to one another and realize that everyone is fighting his or her own battles.

Sometimes people lose some of those battles. There may be times when one of your coworker’s mental health becomes a bigger problem than he or she can handle. That person may need some time away from the office to manage things and get his or her mental health under control. In situations like this, your coworker may not feel able to talk about what is going on or may be advised not to. It’s up to you to make the person feel like it’s ok to need to take time. What you shouldn’t do is remind them how much work is falling on you while they’re gone or how they may be letting down the team.

Mental health days are named that for a reason. Too often are people judged for taking a day off of work to take care of themselves and make sure they are in a good headspace. For a person with a mood disorder, for example, it may be difficult to control his or her emotions and there may be extreme highs and lows, sometimes all in one day. For people who take medication, sometimes the side effects can be unbearable or the medication itself needs a dosage tweak.  Just as you would take a few days off of work if you had the flu to go to the doctor, get some medication, and rest, so does the person with a mental illness. It just looks a little different.

The bottom line is, everyone struggles with something, whether it’s a physical illness, a mental illness, or other life stressors. What’s important is that, as human beings, we forgive one another for what we may view as shortcomings that are really related to some type of illness or stressor. As a coworker, the best thing you can do is be understanding and supportive, because you never know what’s going on with the person next to you.

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