You know those days when you can’t deal with people anymore? Ever had a panic attack? You don’t easily forget that. Some days are harder to wake up to than others, but for many people who struggle with mental health, those highs and lows vary drastically.
Mental health is still stigmatised in the workplace, so many people keep it hidden or minimise their own suffering. If they look good on the outside, they must feel good on the inside, right?
No. Everyone’s different, and that’s okay — their brilliant personality and contributions still matter and bring positive change in the workplace.
That’s why it’s intrinsic for coworkers to step up and support a worker who struggles with mental health. Most people will be in a similar space one day where they need that type of support system. Follow the golden rule, and give the support you might one day need, but with respect to your coworker’s expression of what’s needed.
1. Normalise Mental Health Days
Most workers don’t take vacation days when they need it because they fear their boss will look down on them for lowering their level of contribution.
So, imagine struggling with mental health on top of that. The coworker feels afraid of being doubly stigmatised. Last year, one woman blatantly stated in an email that she was taking not one but several days off for mental health and her boss stepped up to reaffirm her choice and thank her for the reminder that those days are necessary. That message was shared worldwide.
So, when you need such a day, take that day. If you see your coworker struggling, lend them your validation — that it’s okay to take a day or two.
2. Monitor Secondhand Stress
Ever notice that when a friend rants about something it riles you up, too? Similarly, when those you care about are stressed, it rubs off on you, too — that’s known as secondhand stress. If someone in your field of vision verbally or non-verbally expresses stress, they trigger your stress hormones, too. Divert it by smiling and practicing other positive actions.
Learn to monitor your own stress levels, and check in with your coworker. Are there any ways you can pitch in to help lower the effects of secondhand stress in the workplace? Take more mini breaks, and invite your coworker for a short walk. Bring back coffee.
Don’t crowd your coworker, but check in once every afternoon, or every other afternoon. Sometimes, a friendly face that reminds you to breathe or makes you laugh makes a huge difference in getting through the day.
3. Redefine Weakness as Strength
Does your coworker express high energy levels or seem “too” sensitive? These parts that come across as weaknesses can also be strengths.
Those who experience a range of emotions know what that’s like and possess a very empathetic and contentious nature. If you have a nervous client or need to appeal to an audience emotionally, this coworker likely possesses unique and valuable insight. When you’re going through a tough day, they’ll get it.
Whenever possible, reinforce the ways that their perceived weaknesses are strengths, but only as appropriate. If your coworker says, “I’m too sensitive. Crying at work makes me look weak.” You can offer up how vulnerability reveals strength and how empathetic they are.
By redefining weaknesses as strengths, you also change your interaction with the coworker and others.
4. Get to Know the Coworker
It’s hard to be objective with someone and adequately support them when you don’t know what they’ve been through. You don’t need to glue yourself to your coworker’s hip, but practice more self-disclosure with your coworker and see what happens.
Chances are your coworker will open up to you more, and you may find shared experiences, such as how the ending of Toy Story 3 makes you both cry every time.
Just listen if they open up about the fact that they struggle with social anxiety, depression or a diagnosed personality disorder. If you want to know more, don’t be afraid to ask but be gentle in doing so.
Get to know their triggers and how they cope, so if a panic attack strikes you can make sure everyone gives the coworker space, and you can help them focus on the pattern in the carpet to ground and center as a mindful breathing exercise. They may feel lost if the onset of their mental illness is new, which happens more than you think. Young adults from 18 to 29 are still cognitively developing which is why mental illness can show up later in life. Personality disorders can develop later since the personality’s not wholly formed.
5. Give Them Space
People who want to be there for someone sometimes tend to overcrowd — or distance themselves too much. When a coworker pulls away, that may be their coping strategy for the day. Severe anxiety can make someone self-distance to cope, but emotional or physical distance may also spontaneously arise as a result of experiencing this condition.
Give them space. Don’t criticise or be a helicopter work mom. Let them go at their own pace and whatever their personal best is that day. Let them be on their own terms because sometimes that’s what space really means.
6. Get the Whole Team Involved to Stress Less
You can also affect change at the work culture level by getting the team investing in stressing less. Burnout due to mental and physical stress is a major health concern worldwide — too much of these types of stress can raise risks for adverse health conditions and even mortality.
Get the whole team involved in whole health wellness. What programs does your employer offer that no one is taking advantage of? Can you pitch an idea to your employer?
See that empty room full of boxes? Offer to get a few employees together to move those boxes and create a meditation room as meditation not only decreases stress levels but positively alters brain chemistry — it increases gray matter in the frontal cortex associated with memory retention and executive decision making.
On a personal level, you can also make a big impact. Collect books to create a small library at your cubicle or in the break room. Create a meetup group with other employees to go on mini nature fitness walks on a nearby greenway, or start up a board game group. When you need a break, grab someone else to go with you.
The Smallest Gesture Matters
No one lives life in the same way as another, but everyone is human, prone to their ups and downs — that’s part of evolving. When you step up to support a coworker struggling with mental health, it helps you make improvements in your own life to better your whole health.
Remember even the smallest of actions matter. Give a minute of your time. Bring them a cup of coffee. Stick your tongue out in passing. Make a new friend. Change work culture. Normalise mental health self-care in the workplace because everyone matters — just as they are.