Can we be better about workplace mental health?

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The short answer to the question posed in the title is “No,” or “No, at least not anytime soon,” and here is the essential reason. When we speak of “workplace mental health issues,” predominantly we are talking about concepts like:

  • Stress
  • Burnout
  • Managers who are not supportive
  • Feeling like you are running in circles
  • Lack of advancement
  • Berating behavior + anger
  • Sexual harassment issues
  • Arbitrary firings/layoffs (or at least seemingly to those who cannot see all the financials)

Most of these terms are serious, with some of them being “very serious.” But a lot of them, to senior decision-makers, are just how work is. Go to an executive and talk about burnout. This is what you will hear:

  • “I hear you, Michael, but this is a competitive place and industry. If you want to succeed here, we expect 11pm nights sometimes.”

Same deal with a lot of these. Go talk about your manager not being supportive to someone above your manager. You will hear this:

  • “I hear you, but Tom has a lot of balls I am asking him to juggle. I need him making the trains run.”

In other words: developing you? Supporting you? No. I need Tom in meetings running point on shit for me, so that we can prove more growth.

The big problem with “mental health issues in the workplace” is that many of them simply overlap with “This is how guys who come to run companies think work has to be,” and thus it’s very hard to solve these issues.

And lest you think these are not issues, know this: more people are killing themselves physically at work than at any time before.

Another issue would be…

… I went to look up articles about mental health in the workplace on Google News just now, and everything on there was from Forbes, which tends to mean it’s a poorly-written list-type article, usually from a business-minded contributor. These aren’t being written by shrinks and psychologists and actual mental health experts. They are being written by people who, if you emailed them about the article, would probably try to sell you some B2B webinar they are hosting. That’s not actual expertise on a topic. We are broadly in an era where expertise is respected less, yes, and this is part of that problem.

So what do we do about mental health at work?

I am also not an expert, so I won’t belabor this. Here are a couple of ideas, though:

  • Focus more on disengagement than engagement: I mean stop doubling down on work and let people have lives outside of work. Usually all these “engagement” solutions just make people more beholden to work, i.e. tacos and foosball.
  • Letters and support: I actually started writing this post because I watched a cool segment on CBS Sunday Morning yesterday about people writing letters to the depressed/suicidal. Mental health is more nuanced than “Hey, I got a letter, so I feel good now,” yes. But connection is the core of the human experience. When you don’t feel connected, you feel sad. Hard to sugarcoat that. You can argue that the opposite word for “addiction” is not actually “sobriety,” but rather “connection” or “community.” I think workplaces are broadly not very connected places. You deal with your boss, your team, and those who sit near you. If you’re struggling, very few know … because they are heads down in their own work. So maybe we need like a buddy/pen pal type system across silos. I think most people would think “Whoa, that’s a stupid idea,” but I think something like that could work.
  • Tie it to the bottom line: Show executives how much money is lost on mental health issues. I don’t honestly think they know. Typically when you #pipe an executive in the wallet, he/she now “gets” an issue more and more.

What else might you add about mental health at work?

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