How to Create Space for Conversations about Mental Health at Work

Women discussing mental health at work

There is no health without mental health. We have no issue telling our colleagues when we’ve got to disappear for a few hours to visit the dentist. We wouldn’t shy away from mentioning our migraines or back pain. But by treating mental health as a taboo subject, separate from our overall health, we stigmatize struggle and make it harder for people to reach out when they need help.

In recent years, attitudes have shifted significantly in the right direction. But it can still be a challenge to know how to create a safe environment for conversations about mental health in the workplace. People feel vulnerable when talking about their mental health; they fear that they will face negativity and judgment. Organizational leaders have a responsibility to create an environment where talking about mental health is met with positivity and openness.

This World Mental Health Day, UK-based charity Mind is challenging everybody to #DoOneThing to support the mental health of themselves and others. If we all do just one thing, we’ll create change bigger than ourselves. 

Take a look at our suggestions, and see what one thing you can do to help make your organization a safer space to talk about mental health.

Turn Your Team Leaders into Mental Health Champions

Ignoring mental health and avoiding conversations does not make the issue go away; it just creates an elephant in the room. Researchers with the London School of Economics found that, where management had an avoidant attitude towards dialogue around mental health in the workplace, this actually led to more staff absences.

The report paints a bleak picture of people who felt that going absent and risking reprimand was safer than opening up about their mental health. Better training and policies are urgently needed, the authors say, specifically to support managers in shifting their attitudes around mental health at work.

Encouraging people to change their mindsets is never easy. But we live in an age where there are more resources than ever in this field. Your managers can be real allies in making changes, if they have the support they need. Providing the right training to your managers will help them gain the confidence to have conversations about mental health with their team.  

Have Those Difficult Conversations about Workload

We’ve all worked with colleagues who struggle to set boundaries around their workload, but often we won’t know that they are overwhelmed until it’s too late. Chronic stress and burnout are now believed to affect up to 50% of the American workforce. Not only does this have deleterious effects on the health of individuals, it also contributes to costly staff turnover and harms productivity.

Conversations about workload and pressure are absolutely necessary parts of managing the risk of burnout. But these conversations are, by their nature, difficult and fraught with emotion. If you approach a team member for a conversation about their workload, they may panic that it’s a veiled criticism. Equally, a team member might want to have a conversation about what is expected of them but feel unable to broach the subject, for fear of rocking the boat and singling themselves out.

In these situations, having some data to lean on can help facilitate the conversation. A colleague may feel more able to raise a concern if they can point to a visualization of their hours worked and show that they are under pressure. It shifts the conversation from a place of subjectivity, to objectivity.

Some time-tracking tools on the market autofill timesheets with estimations. But the data from these estimations will never give you the true picture. Forecast makes it easy for teams to track time accurately in an easy and concise interface, meaning you'll never have to rely on questionable autofilled data. Encouraging employees to be upfront about what hours they have worked will give you visibility of problem areas, and trigger conversations before your team members start to struggle.

As former US Surgeon General Jerome Adams put it: “If we are proactive...we can talk about “how can we be healthy? how can we build resilience? how can we prevent burnout?”—and not just “what do we do once someone’s burned out?”—then I think we’ll be in a better place.” Technology can assist us in being proactive and building better processes to create healthier work environments.


Foster Respect and Openness through Leadership

As the leader of an organization, you can take the reigns on reframing the conversation and set positive examples. Stewart Friedman, Professor of Organizational Psychology and the Wharton School of Business, recommends leading the change-making conversations around mental health that you want to see. “The conversations you instigate and your awareness in choosing topics of discussion are an important piece to the process of change. Openness encourages executives to share more about their own experiences, and that normalizes the experience of others.”

If you show that you do not view mental health as a taboo topic - perhaps through supporting initiatives such as World Mental Health Day - you can help create the cultural shift that will make people feel safer discussing mental health at work.

Give People the Right Tools to Stay on Top of Work

The Mental Health Foundation highlights the incremental increase in working hours as a key reason why the UK workforce is feeling under pressure. 20.1% of the workforce are now working 45 hours or more each week. 

Full-service agency Finally were one organization that found themselves in this situation. Crunch points and a chaotic workflow left people “grinding out projects in the evenings”, working well over their standard 40-hour workweek. But implementing the right project management platform enabled them to cut back on admin tasks and to shift to a far more sustainable 35 hour week. 

Impressively, this change was actually accompanied by an increase in productivity. By using Forecast for their project and resource management, Finally were able to automate much of their project admin, winning time back from fruitless tasks that left the team frustrated. As a result, their billable utilization went up by 130%. 


Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a shock. Economists have been questioning the relation between productivity vs. hours worked for years. Past a certain point, stress and fatigue kick working hours past the point of diminishing returns. Work quality drops, as does your ability to make good decisions and communicate well with colleagues. Who hasn’t snapped and said something regrettable while feeling grouchy and stressed during a busy week? 

The jury really isn’t out on this topic. It’s clear that we need to work smarter and more efficiently. The right tech can give us precious time back.

Involve Staff in Decisions about Workplace Wellbeing

On the surface, it looks as if the upheaval of the past 18 months has prompted employers to take employee wellbeing more seriously. Only 27% of organizations surveyed by the CIPD in 2021 said that they were ‘reactive rather than proactive’ on the issue of wellbeing - a marked improvement on the 41% who reported themselves to have a ‘reactive’ attitude only last year. 

But these are self-reported figures, and the research indicates that some organizations might be indulging in a little wishful thinking. The CIPD found that nearly half of organizations lacked a formal wellbeing strategy, and 59% of organizations allocated no additional budget to well-being measures. Indeed, 4% of organizations asked had actually decreased their well-being budget.

There seems to be a disconnect for some between intention and action. And in many ways, this is understandable. How to support good mental health at work is a behemoth of a topic, and some organizations may not know where to begin. It’s telling that small and medium-sized organizations ranked worse for their mental health provision in the CIPD report. Lack of resources and knowledge can be a stumbling block.

If you’re struggling to start initiating conversations about good mental health at work, there is one simple step that you can take to set you off in the right direction: ask your people what they need. Your organization is unique; your company culture is distinct. You might work in a sector that faces particular challenges at certain points in the year. Your people will be able to attest to this and bring their own valuable experiences to the table.

When employees feel in control and empowered to speak up, they report greater happiness at work. What better excuse could there be to make people feel heard? Enable your staff to have a real hand in crafting what meaningful mental health support looks like in your organization.

Be a Change-Maker

If you are the leader of an organization, your decisions have the potential to create enormous positive change. Having the right tools to do a job can be the key difference between job satisfaction, and job misery. You can give your people a platform to manage their workload efficiently and with ease, enabling them to find balance and embed healthier working habits. You’ll see a happier, more productive environment emerge because of it.

Intelligent project management takes the power of AI and automation to minimize stressful, time-consuming admin, giving people more bandwidth for ideation and creativity. Try Forecast for free to see how an AI-enabled platform can help change your organization into a happier place to work.

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