Why we need to get more comfortable talking about mental health in the workplace!

Share reflect on another very important awareness day, and why we must do better to embed changes in mental health in the workplace, especially the housing and property sector.

World Mental Health Day took place on 10th October and seeks to raise awareness of mental health as a universal human right.

We are all familiar with the statistics that 1 in 4 of us will suffer from a mental health condition or that 1 in 6 people are suffering from a mental health condition at any one time, so much so that these statistics have almost lost their ability to pack a punch.

This means that in even the smallest work team, there is likely to be a colleague who is struggling with their mental health, so why are we still so bad at talking about this subject? Recent government figures show that stress, anxiety and depression cost 17 million working days in absence in 2021/22 – there is a pressing business case for getting better at talking about mental health alongside the moral obligation to staff welfare.

Talking openly about your mental health is a brave and vulnerable thing to do, and despite the welcome visibility of the topic in society today compared to 10 or 20 years ago, it can still be incredibly difficult to talk about the subject.

Why do people not open up about their mental health at work? There can be unique reasons for each individual but there are some broad themes that employers can look to tackle to encourage a healthy discourse around mental health in the workplace.

Fear of judgement

Despite great strides being made in the general discourse around mental health, many people will not talk openly about their problems for fear of being judged, in many different ways. They may be concerned that colleagues will not understand (what do you have to be sad about?), that colleagues will, not necessarily knowingly, belittle their experiences (everyone is a bit stressed out just now), that colleagues may think of them differently or overlook them if they open up about their issues (in light of what you told me….).

Getting past a fear of judgement comes from a healthy culture of openness and awareness in the workplace, which comes from the top down. Leaders must lead by example when it comes to mental health, be that sharing their experiences, making use of mental health initiatives such as mental health days, or ensuring there is a wellbeing perspective on all aspects of organisational management tools. Even in an open and safe environment, people may still struggle to open up about their mental health but giving managers the right tools to ask the right questions will make this much easier.

Toxic positivity

Whilst many of us would like to think that we would not respond in such a way, it can be quite easy to slip into ‘toxic positivity’ at the precise moment that a colleague needs to be heard the most. We have all been in situations where we have offered platitudes and perhaps missed a chance for a genuine connection, talk of rain for rainbows and cracked eggs for omelettes, do nothing but add to the distress for someone who is already suffering from poor mental health.

Overcoming toxic positivity in the workplace can be as simple as recognising that something is difficult, be that a work or personal situation, listening and empathising with that person. To do so in that moment will go much further in building the kind of work environment that a person can feel safe to have these discussions and therefore thrive in. There is a place for the resilience that is inherent in these types of mantras, but it is not in responding to someone who has just opened up about their mental health struggles.


There has been a lot of focus recently on training in resilience skills, which in and of itself is not a bad thing, but this cannot be a sticking plaster over a gaping wound and must not overlook that we are living and working in highly stressful times. Resilience skills taught at the height of stress or distress are not going to be a magic wand, indeed to tell the person who is experiencing mental ill health that they need to engage resilience skills or remember their resilience training, can have the opposite effect making them feel guilty that they are not resilient and can further reduce a sense of self-esteem and worth.

Resilience skills cannot take the place of active listening, empathy and support when there is a mental health crisis and must form part of a much more nuanced package of support around mental health in the workplace.

Fear of ridicule

Linking back to the recurrent theme of safety, often those suffering from mental health conditions will avoid talking about them for fear of being ridiculed, usually by those who have little or no understanding of what the lived experience of that condition is. It is often cited by those suffering with the regularly misunderstood obsessive-compulsive disorder, when people misunderstand it as the “neatness” disease when the condition can manifest in a myriad of different highly debilitating ways that have nothing to do with tidiness or cleanliness.

Education is the easiest way to overcome this barrier, as many jokes or comments come from a place of misunderstanding or ignorance about a particular condition. Being a mental health ally and challenging and correcting unacceptable statements or behaviour around mental health also send strong signals to both sufferers and colleagues about the workplace environment that you want to create.

All of the issues above are common roadblocks to open and honest conversations about mental health in the workplace and all relate back to authenticity. Being able to create space for meaningful and frank conversations about mental health relies on employees trusting that employers genuinely care about their mental health. According to one recent study, nearly 8 out of 10 employees do not feel that employers are walking the walk on mental health and are merely ‘mental health washing’. This worrying statistic suggests a discord between the experience of our teams and the approaches by organisations. Support for the topic posted on social media once or twice a year is essentially meaningless unless it is underpinned by a genuine interest in the mental health and wellbeing of your staff team.

And why is this particularly important for those working in the property and housing sector? As a training provider, Share often get a window into the world of work and the pressing issues of the time, and recently they have seen a trend towards workplaces needing help to support their colleagues in switching off from work, in creating healthy boundaries and in some cases in how to respond when customers talk about self-harm and suicide. The cost of living crisis has impacted the mental health of their staff, but also of their customers and service users, and often they bring these worries to the housing staff in Share’s teams, so it is more important than ever that we create working environments where colleagues feel safe and supported to open up and seek support for their mental health.

Let us celebrate World Mental Health Awareness Day but let’s also make sure that it is more than an awareness day and that mental health awareness and support is a cornerstone of our organisational culture all year round.