A mental health sick day – would you take such a day off if your organization offered it? Chances are, not. Because you might wonder how your colleagues would perceive it, if you declare that you’re having mental health challenges. It’s a stigma that we carry. But here’s the thing – there is no legal difference between taking a day off for anxiety and a day off for back pain.

How can you, as a leader, build a culture of accepting mental health challenges? Because these issues are pretty common. Think stress, anxiety, sleeplessness, conflict, depression, and fatigue. Here’s how:

  • Listen to the lexicon. There are certain statements people make casually, which reinforce the stigma around mental health. For example, if someone is showing anger at work or being sharp, people might say, “She has gone crazy today.” Or if a person has a clean and very organized desk, someone might say, “Wow, you’re really OCD about things.” These are meant as a joke but can be hurtful. People who have a mental health issue might feel shut down on hearing this.

So, if you hear a team member make such a statement, talk to them in private, and bring the behavior to their attention. They may be unaware of the impact. Be gentle, and say, “I heard you say _____ the other day and wanted to share that it can be very hurtful to someone who has a real challenge. Could you please refrain from making such remarks?

  • Promote mental health break days. Just having a policy isn’t enough. Make it safe for people to take a break. Would you ask someone to push through if they had fever? No. Similarly, if someone seems low consistently, or shows high irritability, ask them if they would like a break. Be it for a few hours. Send out emails encouraging the idea of a mental health break. Or even better, take one, and let your team know. Say, “I’ve been pretty upset for the last few days and have had problems sleeping. I would like to take a day off to rest. If you feel this way ever, take a break.
  • Train people to respond. Since we don’t acknowledge mental health challenges, chances of our cups overflowing at work are high. People might have breakdowns, like a sudden outburst of anger, crying, or a panic attack (breathlessness, heartaches). Train team members on how to respond to such situations. These are critical moments for creating safety for the person experiencing the challenge. Teach people breathing techniques, the right things to say to comfort someone, and how to listen to an anxious person. These basic skills can reduce the harm wrong or inadequate responses cause.

When your people are struggling, you want them to be able to open up and ask for help. That’s a sign of a safe culture where we can belong. Are you willing to take the right steps to create it?

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