Mental health conditions and illness can affect any of us at any time and can last for varying periods in our lives. In recent months we’ve had RUOK? Day, Mental Health Awareness Month and Movember, all encouraging self-care, looking out for each other, having important conversations and driving down the stigma around mental illness. It’s important that we continue to have these conversations beyond the awareness days and integrate them into our workplace culture.

Here’s why it’s so important for us to be addressing the complex issue in our workplaces (ref. Beyond Blue):

  • One in six Australians is currently experiencing depression or anxiety or both.
  • One in four young people experiences a mental health condition and suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians aged 15 to 24.
  • Almost eight people die by suicide each day in Australia.Six of these are men. In many cases mental health conditions are a contributing factor.
  • It’s common for both parents to experience a range of emotions during pregnancy, women may experience anxiety or depression and it can be a stressful time for dads too.
  • Ninety-one per cent of employees believe mental health in the workplace is important. However, only 52 percent of employees believe their workplace is mentally healthy.
  • Seventy-one percent of organisational leaders believe leaders are committed to promoting the mental health of staff, but only 37 per cent of employees believe that this is the case.

Stigma around mental illness is a significant barrier to people accessing professional support services and accessing support through their employer. Thirty-five percent of employees state they would not want anyone to know about their experience of depression or anxiety.

Here’s some ways in which leaders can help reduce the stigma around mental illness in our workplaces:

Pay attention to language

We all need to be aware of the words we use that can contribute to stigmatising mental health issues: “She’s so OCD organising everything” “She’s totally schizo today!” “He is being so bi-polar this week — one minute he’s up, the next he’s down.” We’ve heard comments like these, maybe even made them ourselves. But through the ears of a colleague who has a mental health challenge, they can sound like indictments. Would you open up about a concern or condition after hearing these words? Would you ask your leader for time off to access support services for a mental health condition?

Rethink “sick days” 

If you have a physical condition or disease, people don’t say “just push through” or “can you learn to deal with it?” They recognise that it’s an illness and you’ll need to take time off to treat it. If you have the flu, your manager will tell you to go home and rest knowing you won’t get well unless you do. But few people in organisations would react to signs of stress, anxiety, or depression in the same way. We need to be comfortable with the idea of suggesting and requesting days to focus on improving mental as well as physical health.

Encourage open and honest conversations

It’s important to create a safe environment for people to talk about their challenges, past and present, without fear of being called “unstable” or being passed up for the next big project or promotion. Employees shouldn’t fear that they will be judged or excluded if they open up in this way. Leaders can set the tone for this by sharing their own experiences, or stories of other people who have struggled with mental health issues, gotten help and resumed successful careers (with permission).  They should also explicitly encourage everyone to speak up when feeling overwhelmed or in need. How you react and respond when they do is critical.

Be proactive

Not all stress is bad, and people in high-pressure roles often grow accustomed to it or develop coping mechanisms.  However, prolonged unmanageable stress can contribute to worsening symptoms of mental illness. Leaders need to ensure their employees are finding the right balance. This can be different for everyone and change over time so it’s important to keep the conversation going by offering access to programs, resources and education on stress management and resilience-building is one way. Leaders need to do a better job of helping their employees connect to resources before stress leads to more serious problems.

Train people to notice and respond

Most offices keep a first aid kit around in case someone injures themselves but what about responding to people with mental health concerns or issues? There’s now available training programs for leaders and employees, including Mental Health First Aid, focused on increasing people’s ability to recognise the signs of someone who may be struggling with a mental health challenge and connect them to support resources. According to a 2014 PwC report, businesses receive an average return on investment of $2.30 for every $1 they invest in effective workplace mental health strategies, making investing in mental health a win-win situation for employers and employees.

When your people are struggling, you want them to be able to open up and ask for help. These five strategies can help leaders in your business create a culture that drives down the stigma around mental illness.