- Stigma around discussing mental health has been falling as awareness of the number of people with mental health conditions rises.
- The role of mental health awareness in workspaces is often poorly defined and etiquette can often breakdown into the famous “Golden Rule,” which isn’t a good fit in this context.
- Directly asking others how they would like to be treated is the best way to facilitate appropriate mental health communication in the workplace.
Mental health is a very real health issue, with physical as well as psychological impacts. However, mental health has not always been taken as seriously as it ought to have been.
According to John’s Hopkins University, the term “mental hygiene” dates back to 1843 in the United States, as coined by physician William Sweetser. From then throughout the better part of the 20th-century, the medical community proved pessimistic in their prognosis for mental health patients.
This inevitably led to stigma and mistreatment.
Luckily, times have changed. Mental health awareness and advocacy is at its all-time peak. Effectively, the opposite of history is now taking place — culture and policy actively encourage the preservation of the rights of those suffering with mental health conditions.
While advocacy remains on the rise, unfortunately mental health problems among the general population are also at all-time highs.
Such trends are also found in the world of work. Most workers see the return to in-person work as a looming mass mental health crisis.
The World of Work Remains Uncertain About Mental Health
Given these massive shifts in society and culture regarding mental health, the world of work is facing an identity crisis. It’s still relatively unclear how employees and employers should talk about mental health at work.
The role of mental health awareness in workspaces is absolutely present, but it is often poorly defined. Etiquette can easily break down into the famous Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
This is not always a good maxim to abide by, especially when a person’s unique medical situation is not transparent. Assuming we know how another person feels in such moments could prove disastrous.
Consider, for example, a case earlier this year in Kentucky in which worker Kevin Berling had asked his employer to not throw him a party because it would trigger his anxiety.
Berling’s employer, Gravity Diagnostics, ignored his simple request by throwing a party anyway, and then fired Berling for being upset over it.
Berling was awarded $450,000 in a lawsuit for workplace discrimination and retaliation. This ought to be a lesson for employers — if workers tell you they want to be treated a specific way with respect to their mental health, listen to their needs and adjust your behavior toward them accordingly.
The Reverse Golden Rule
In turn, Berling’s story is one that teaches us that a prime factor for successful mental health advocacy is what could be coined the “reverse Golden Rule,” which is a principle found in ancient Daoism.
As opposed to doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, the reverse is, in effect, “do unto others as others’ needs demand.” These needs cannot be assumed; that is the behavior that leads to unnecessary triggers in the workforce and their subsequent lawsuits upon employers.
Berling’s employer should have respected his request. Establishing a system and expectation that a request of that sort is granted is the key to successfully improving how to talk about mental health at work.
One specifiable approach to take is called the “Trauma-Informed Approach,” which involves an active engagement with those sharing a workspace including normalizing sensitivity to the feelings of others and a respect for expressed health needs.
For some, this might mean getting to take sick time off because of symptoms of depression. For others, this could mean requesting complete privacy regarding their mental health.
The central point is that everyone is treated as a unique individual with unique needs.