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Why Talking About Mental Health at Work Matters

Feb. 16, 2024
Employees aren’t obligated to share about their personal lives. But if they choose to, their colleagues and supervisors can see more of the total person—and that can make it easier to talk about safety.

I am a shy, quiet and extremely private person. But, in the spirit of improving workplace safety, I’m going be brave and share a moment from my career that has had a profound impact on me.

At a previous job, my manager abruptly walked into my office, shut the door and sat down. I did a fast mental rundown of what I had done that day because I thought I was in trouble.

To my surprise, my manager began explaining everyone struggles sometimes, and there’s absolutely no shame in speaking with a professional or taking medications. They also shared that there have been times when they have sought help for their own mental health.

It turned out to be a miscommunication, as someone tagged me on a post about poor mental health. I hadn’t seen the notification, but my manager did—and immediately sprang into action. My manager did not have to check-in with me. My manager did not have to share their experiences. My manager did not have to do anything, really.

But they did, and it remains the kindest thing a supervisor has ever done for me. In fact, it is one of the kindest things anyone has ever done for me, period.

Recently, I was talking with some safety professionals about creating a strong safety program and being an effective safety manager. Despite using different words, they all said basically the same thing: To have a safe workplace, you have to show people you care.

That means knowing a bit about employees and their family. That means asking employees questions about their lives. That means connecting with employees and engaging with them on an emotional level rather than just in a transactional nature. That means being brave enough to share, and sometimes even be vulnerable.

This is by no means an easy task, but speaking from personal experience, I can tell you it is everything.

We all want to feel like we matter. It’s so easy to get stuck in the daily routine and focus on the work at hand. As safety professionals, you are in a position to walk the floor and talk with employees. You’re in a position to intervene if you see something concerning, be it an electrical hazard or concern about someone’s well-being.

By acting to keep people safe, you can make a meaningful impact in the lives of others. While you may be used to acting to keep workers physically safe, I understand that it can be uncomfortable to talk about personal matters. I know I’m guilty of hiding behind the mask of professionalism and limiting small talk to the weather. Nevertheless, if you see something that concerns you, I hope you are courageous enough to speak up or reach out.

COVID-19 has laid bare the fact that people are struggling in so many different ways. It doesn’t matter if it’s a professional or personal matter because our troubles follow us wherever we go.

It’s past time we dismissed the idea that we check our personal problems at the door when we clock in to work. Instead, let’s decide to care for the whole employee and invite them to talk about anything that’s weighing on them.

Sometimes, people just need an ear to listen to them. Sometimes, as was the case with me, there might be a miscommunication that’s easily resolved. Sometimes, people really do need help but are unable to act. That’s when you must put your own fears aside and be bold.

Speaking from personal experience, I am confident that employees will remember—and appreciate—that you took the first step.

We often talk about making sure people leave work the same way they entered. I disagree. I think we need to make sure they leave work in a better state than the way they entered. Showing employes that you care is one of the best things you can do—and it goes a long way to creating a safer workplace.

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