How to Be a Mental Health Advocate in the Workplace

This week ushers in World Mental Health Day, an opportunity to recognize mental health as a critical component of health care and to redouble our efforts at reducing stigma.

The theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day is mental health in the workplace. A recent World Health Organization study found that anxiety and depression, two of the most common mental health problems, have cost the global economy $1 trillion each year.

A significant body of research shows that mental health problems in the workplace are sorely under-recognized.

While workplace stress appears to impact men more frequently than women — partly because women tend to be more open about their health problems and seek care earlier — mental health challenges can affect anyone. And they’re a particularly acute problem for minority workers.

Below are just a few key ways that employers, managers and workers themselves can help advocate for mental wellness in the workplace.

1. Break the silence

Despite the fact that research shows three out of every four employees will — at some point in their working lives — experience poor mental health tied to their work lives, prevailing culture keeps employment and mental health care separate.

Employees may feel that they cannot be open about their depression, anxiety or other conditions. They also may fear not being believed or being perceived as trying to get out of doing a particular job. Some workers may even fear that their job is on the line if they are open about their struggle. And recent research suggests that this is not an unwarranted fear — and may lead to poorer mental health.

One easy step that employers, managers and employees can take is to simply talk about mental health. By bringing this topic into the workplace and establishing an open dialog, we can create a safe and comfortable atmosphere. That way, employees can turn to fellow workers and managers for necessary support.

2. Understand that mental health problems can look different in the workplace

When discussing conditions like depression, most people can characterize their effects fairly accurately. In general terms, depression seems to manifest in persistent low mood, poorer quality of life and marked lack of self esteem, among other traits.

However, when in a work environment, mental health problems can manifest quite differently. For example, a Harvard University study that examined depression in the workplace notes:

Although the DSM-IV lists low mood as the defining symptom of depression, in the workplace this disorder is more likely to manifest in behaviors — such as nervousness, restlessness, or irritability — and in physical complaints, such as a preoccupation with aches and pains. In addition, employees may become passive, withdrawn, aimless, and unproductive. They also may be fatigued at work, partly as a result of the mood disorder or because they are having trouble sleeping at night. Depression may also impair judgment or cloud decision making.

This finding is important, given that some of these signs of depression may be mistaken for a lack of professionalism.

Similarly, bipolar disorder could manifest in specific behaviors such as flouting rules, or carrying out duties with a ferocity that at first seems admirable but quickly devolves into loss of productivity as mania asserts itself.

When fellow employees are able to recognize these signs in their peers, they can help to facilitate self-care and create an environment in which it is acceptable to recognize a decline in mental health. When employers are able to show empathy and take steps to help care for people dealing with these conditions while on the job, they can help improve their employees’ work life and keep them working to the best of their ability.

3. Help people with mental health issues stay employed

A common misconception is that people who suffer from mental health challenges are content to be out of work or are not suitable to hire. But research shows that this just isn’t true.

In fact, finding employment and holding down a job, while sometimes difficult, can be a key aspect of recovery and self worth for many people who have a history of mental health issues.

So what can employers do?

Having a strong mental health wellness strategy in place for your business can be crucial. It is also an employer’s responsibility to explore ways to mitigate undue workplace stress. One strategy includes assessing workload and managing employee stress accordingly — either by shifting work around or giving employees breaks when they are tackling particularly challenging tasks.

Employers should also, when possible, give employees access to health care professionals who can help assess and tend to their needs. In larger companies, this may be accomplished through an HR department. And smaller companies, can provide flexible schedules to employees who need to seek mental health care.

The World Health Organization’s model policy for employers offers a solid starting point for tailoring a mental health policy to any given business.

General tips

Here are a few additional ideas for fostering mental wellness in the workplace. None of these tips will cure a mental health problem, but they may help to create a general sense of well-being that facilitates a healthy working environment:

  • While it could seem frivolous, plants in the workplace have been shown to lift general mood and reduce generalized health complaints.
  • Including mental health as part of overall employee health strategies validates this area of concern and creates an environment in which discussing mental health is encouraged.
  • Keeping out-of-hours communication to a minimum is key. Constant emails and phone calls can be significant sources of stress that could exacerbate mental health problems. Let employees know that it’s okay to switch off.

Do you have any mental health tips for the workplace? Please share them in the comments below and help others benefit from your experience!

Photo Credit: Climate KIC/Unsplash


Kathryn I
Kathryn I3 months ago

Steve, congratulations on your writing of this article, because it is one of the most thought-provoking ones that I have ever read! You have mentioned so much that I hadn't even begun to think about! This is an outstanding concept, and one that can be of help to so many employees! Thank you for sharing it as well!

Margie F
Margie F4 months ago

Are any of us completely sane? We all have our crazy sides.

Toni W
Toni W4 months ago


Toni W
Toni W4 months ago


Carole R
Carole R4 months ago

Good information.Thanks.

One Heart inc
One Heart inc4 months ago


Winn A
Winn A4 months ago

I work in a mental health clinic. Please, if you need help please do all you can to get help for yourself and others. There are programs, for people without insurance in WA State that can help. Don't give up.

Janis K
Janis K4 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

Peggy B
Peggy B4 months ago


Anne Moran
Anne Moran4 months ago

There are so many people out of work,, that employers can pick and choose all they like... - Should they find out a potential employee has a mental illness,, the chance of them being hired is zero to none... - You can sugarcoat it all you want,, but that's reality..