How to tackle mental health stigma in the workplace

It seems some people always drown in work, whilst others surf on the waves. And we all know that one colleague who adds yet another project onto her/his plate, seemingly capable of succeeding a million things – whilst simultaneously being that active friend and caring family member. Is she or he a superhuman, a robot – or just a fool?

The image of an “ideal worker” plays a huge role – it is the unhealthy expectation to prioritise our job over other parts of life. Others workloads, activities or success intimidates, astonishes or pushes us to “do the impossible”, and makes us feel jealous, incompetent or failing at times. It is hard to accept that we all have different needs, skills and desires – and therefore we might end up throwing ourselves heedlessly into work. This might go all well for quite a while – but not forever.

Seven ingredients to maintain a healthy work climate

The possibility for employees to encourage healthy boundaries between work and private life is rooted in the organisational culture at work. It is there where the power of the workplace lies: from managers and colleagues over process management to (remote) work infrastructure, everything weighs in to tackling the mental health stigma at work.

  1. Shift of conception

The key to mental well-being and to addressing that mental health stigma at work is to shift the conception of having competing demands, i.e. having more to be done than available resources allow, or setting up common and reinforcing demands. A competitive atmosphere can sometimes give you the motivational boost you need but usually it drains your and everyone else’s energy in the long term.

2. Psychological detachment

Create a culture with room for psychological detachment from work. Embed processes into the organisational structure; it is crucial to recognize and thematise early on when the workload is overwhelming, and to talk about the alternatives of reallocating work without blaming or shaming.

3. Community

Never underestimate the importance of an encouraging community. The sense of belonging, of sharing a common goal and of being more to another than “just” colleagues is crucial. The best you can do is to arrange meetings out of office where people can really relate to each other and show their true personalities. In times of COVID-19, organize gatherings outdoors.

4. Transparency

Leaders are role models for everyone at the workplace. If you wish to build an atmosphere of trust and authenticity, you need to lead the way and be your authentic self. Take the leap and show some vulnerability. It gives everyone else a chance to do the same, sooner or later.

5. Empathy

Again, lead by example. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes, aim to be empathetic in all situations, and others will eventually do the same. Recognising and appropriately responding to emotions is key to avoiding conflicts and stress. If you or someone else struggles, don’t worry – emotional intelligence can (and should!) be trained and continuously enhanced.

6. Continuous evaluation

Most of the previous ingredients are encouraged by managers or the organisational culture in theory, yet superiors or colleagues may act and behave differently in practice. This is why all the factors that affect the atmosphere and workplace well-being have to be continually assessed. Leaders should behave accordingly to set the right tone, to build a well-functioning, harmonious, and sustainable team. 

7. Take care of yourself

In order to do all this, a responsible smart leader, as much as any good colleague in a work community, should not carry the burden on her/his shoulders alone but sometimes dare to ask for help before helping others. It’s all about self-care first!

Content by Jaana Ojanen. Storytelling by Nina Laurinkari, freelance storyteller, writer and jurist.