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How to Build Trust Around Mental Health

Recently, I posted a Linkedin poll asking who respondents would turn to at work if their mental health was suffering because of their job.  The majority (35%) said they would speak with their Manager. 31% would tell a coworker. 11% would go to HR. Alarmingly, 23% said they would stay silent.

What really took me by surprise wasn’t the high volume of votes themselves, though, but the responses in the comments. It was very clear that people don’t trust their employers.

Multiple commenters shared that they felt no one would help, that profits mattered more than employee health and that they would be fired or stunted in their career growth if they reached out.

Mental health can be hard for most of us to discuss. Earlier this year, I lost my uncle to suicide. There are any number of reasons that someone might have for not wanting to speak up in their workplace, let alone at all.

But it was clear, in these comments, that those respondents wouldn’t speak up because of a lack of trust or fear.  I wanted to know how their employers were failing, so I sent out an anonymous survey, asking what workplaces were and weren’t doing to create trust.

Fostering trust

Respondents who replied positively repeated the same, simple answer: they seek empathy and action.

As one respondent explained, their employer “walked the talk on understanding, flexibility and compassion”. It was clear that trusted employers were acting and creating a space for conversation.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to targeting mental health issues in the workplace, but it’s clear there are steps any employer can take to support their team and foster a supportive community.

Make it clear that mental health matters 

One of the simplest and most effective actions anyone in leadership can take is to open up about their own struggles. Need a mental health day? Take one, and let your team know! Taking walks or practising other forms of self-care? Talk about it!

As one respondent to the survey said, hold “open and transparent conversations”. Make it clear that mental health matters and is always up for discussion. 

Offer anonymous surveys, hold regular one-on-one check-ins, encourage staff to report discrimination or harassment and always leave your door open to feedback. Mental health is unique to each person, and policies should be supplemented by employers who listen when someone has fallen through the cracks.

Walking the talk

An open door is great, but it’s also a starting place. What policies exist and what policies are possible? Employers who ensure managers are trained and everyday working procedures are reviewed create a more inclusive and open culture. Using those anonymous surveys to inform policies makes it clear that wellbeing is central to your organisation, and that when employees speak up, someone will listen.

From offering flexibility and paid mental health days (Wellbeing Fridays), access to counselling hotlines or a wellness stipend to setting up peer support programs, diversity & inclusion strategies, and tools that promote mindfulness and exercise, there’s a wide range of actions any employer can take.

If change is coming, whether on an organisational scale or lower down, recognise the negative impact this can have on employees and consider actions to mitigate the stress and effect on mental health, from direct and clear communication to adjustments for anyone who’s struggling.

Give people a reason to talk

Take it further: don’t just provide help. Celebrate and champion a culture of diversity and vulnerability. Positive culture thrives on openness and authenticity. Encourage employees to speak up by making it clear that everyone is treated fairly and feedback isn’t reprimanded through immediate action, or down the line, when it comes to promotions or raises.

Ensure that managers are trained to respond to these conversations, and make sure they, in turn, are supported. Celebrate the initiatives and policies that have worked and take advantage of them yourself. Again, it’s about walking the talk and recognising that trust surrounding mental health is earned, not automatic.

Even if an employer has created policies on paper, employees need to know that when it comes to action, their managers won’t fail them.

For anyone who is struggling with mental health and is uncertain about approaching their employer, here’s another blog about starting a conversation.