Promoting Mental Health in the Workplace

[Content note: mental illness, including eating disorders]

This post was requested by Kate [not FtB!Kate], who donated to my conference fundraiser. She wanted to hear my opinion on mental health in the workplace and how employees and employers can foster a culture that values and promotes mental health. She had some of her own suggestions, which I’ve incorporated into this piece with her permission.

Work is often a concern for people who suffer from mental illnesses. They might worry, for instance, that their struggles will impact their work performance, that coworkers or employers will find out that they have a diagnosis and stigmatize (or even fire) them, or that offhand comments at work could trigger eating disorder symptoms.

I wrote about this topic much more generally in this piece, which was about how to prioritize and promote mental health in one’s community. Workplaces are particular types of communities, so a lot of this still applies. At the same time, workplaces present particular challenges to promoting mental health, as well as particular capabilities that might help.

Note that I’m writing this as a person with a mental illness, as a person who works, and as a person who observes human behavior. I’m not writing this as someone who’s ever been a manager or a supervisor, so while I can speak to what I would like to see from managers and supervisors, I don’t have firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to be one. If you have that experience and you’d like to weigh in in the comments, feel free to do so.

For employers/managers/supervisors

1. Ensure that the assignments you give your employees and the culture you foster in the office encourage and allow employees to take good care of themselves.

Every workplace that expects people to skip lunch or sleep less than 7 hours a night is a workplace that is detrimental not only to physical health, but mental health as well. Sleep deprivation can dangerously exacerbate many mental illnesses, and having to skip meals can cause people with eating disorders to relapse. Obviously this is unavoidable with certain jobs or when a big important project is nearing completion, but it’s avoidable with most jobs most of the time.

(At the same time, recognize that this is a problem with American culture at large, and companies feel pressure to pressure their employees in this way because if they don’t, a competitor will, and it’ll reap the profits.)

2. Make sure that new employees understand the health coverage they’re receiving under the company’s benefits plan, especially as it pertains to mental health.

Explain in as little legalese as possible what the coverage includes and doesn’t include, and where they can go to find more detailed information or look up specialists in their area. In my experience, many people are worried that if they see a mental health professional using their employer-provided insurance plan, their employer will somehow have access to their medical records. Emphasize that it’s none of your business as an employer what your employees do with their health insurance and that providers cannot disclose such information to you without a patient’s consent. For extra points, give a short overview of HIPAA.

Going over this information not only improves the odds that employees are able to get the mental healthcare they need, but it shows that you’re comfortable discussing mental health with employees and that your company thinks it’s important.

3. If you choose to have health-related contests at the office, focus them on fitness goals or healthy eating, not weight loss.

Personally, though, I’d avoid these altogether because many people consider health a personal matter and feel pretty uncomfortable about having to discuss it publicly and competitively. Even if the contest is optional, keep in mind that people will feel a strong social pressure to join in. Who wants to be the only person in the office who doesn’t seem to care about staying in shape?

In any case, framing weight loss as an intrinsically healthy and positive goal is harmful and counterproductive. You can weigh little and be very unhealthy, and if you lose weight in an unhealthy way, you’ll probably gain it back anyway. A better way to structure a health contest is by encouraging participants to achieve goals that are proven to be healthy and doable.

4. Make sure employees understand the policies and processes about taking time off for medical reasons (and remember that mental health is a medical issue).

It’s especially important to find a way to emphasize that mental health is just as important as physical health, and little gestures make a big difference. For example, you could say something like, “If you know in advance you’re going to need time off, like for a physical or a therapy appointment, you can submit the form to me at at least a week’s notice.” That provides important information while also implicitly conveying the fact that you consider therapy to be a legitimate reason to leave work an hour early.

For employees

1. Consider your own mental health when choosing responsibilities to take on at work.

It’s understandable, especially in this economy, to try to impress your boss by offering to do as much as possible and overworking yourself. However, good mental health should be seen as an investment. If you take good care of it, you’ll ultimately be more productive than if you neglect it and burn out.

This applies to all those little volunteer opportunities that aren’t directly job-related, either. If you have social anxiety, it might be a bad idea to offer to organize a social outing for the office. If you have an eating disorder that makes it really stressful to choose food to buy, it might be a bad idea to offer to bring snacks for a meeting. You know yourself best.

2. If you feel safe and comfortable, let your boss know about mental health issues that may affect your performance and how you plan to deal with them.

The “if you feel safe and comfortable” is the key part. I’m absolutely not suggesting that everyone can and should come out about their mental illness to their boss, since I know that in many cases that’s a really bad idea. (It shouldn’t be, but it is.) But personally, I know people who did this and found it really helpful because they were able to work collaboratively with their boss to make sure that they can get the time off they need and that they can fulfill their responsibilities rather than having to keep it a secret and try to solve potential problems on their own. Disclosing also makes it possible to receive any accommodations you may need, which brings me to:

3. Educate yourself about laws related to mental illness and the workplace.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is obviously a major one, but so is HIPAA, which I mentioned earlier. The definition of “disability” in the ADA is intentionally quite general, but mental illnesses are included: depression, anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, and so on. Title I of the ADA concerns employment. There’s a lot of useful information in there; for instance, an employer cannot ask you in a job interview whether or not you’ve been treated for mental health problems, or which medications you’re taking. Keep in mind that the ADA only applies to businesses with 15 or more employees, however. Here’s another useful article about it.

For everyone

1. When someone asks you how you’re doing, be honest (within reason).

In the piece I linked to earlier, I wrote:

This is something I’ve been really making an effort to do. This doesn’t mean that every time someone asks me “What’s up?” I give them The Unabridged Chronicles of Miri’s Current Woes and Suffering. But I try not to just say “Good!” unless I mean it. Instead I’ll say, “I’ve been going through a rough patch lately, but things are looking up. How about you?” or “Pretty worried about my grad school loans, but hopefully I’ll figure it out.” The point isn’t so much that I desperately need to share these things with people; rather, I’m signaling that 1) I trust them with this information, and 2) they are welcome to open up to me, too. Ending on a positive note and/or by asking them how they are makes it clear that I’m not trying to dump all my problems on them, but I leave it up to them to decide whether or not to ask more questions and try to comfort me, or to just go ahead and tell me how they’re doing.

At work, there are obviously different standards than in other communities, or with friends and family. But even at work, there’s room for honesty and mutual support.

2. Be mindful of using language that relates to mental illness.

Casual usage of diagnostic terms (“That’s so OCD,” “You’re being delusional,” etc.) hurts people with mental illnesses by trivializing their conditions and turning them into the butt of a joke. It also makes it more difficult for people to disclose mental illnesses because it keeps people from taking them seriously. If “ADHD” is what you call it when you can’t focus on a boring project and someone tells you they have “ADHD,” you’re not going to think, “Oh, this person has a serious condition that makes it neurologically impossible for them to focus on a task unless they get treatment.” You’re going to think, “Oh, come on, they just need to close Facebook and get focused.”

3. Remember that talking about dieting and weight loss can be very triggering for people with past or current eating disorders.

Fat talk (as it’s called) is so ingrained in our culture and communication patterns that it’s hard to imagine that it could be such a serious issue for someone. But anecdotally, it seems that eating disorders in particular are very easily triggered by offhand remarks like “Ugh I need to work off this cupcake” or “My thighs are huge.” Even when not actually triggering, these comments encourage unhealthy behavior and create a social norm of dieting and preoccupation with weight loss.

I sometimes dread being around groups of women who are not my friends because more likely than not, I’m going to hear these comments. And it’s not like you can avoid your coworkers. So if you must do it, try not to do it to a captive audience.

4. Respect others’ privacy when it comes to mental health issues.

Just as you should never out an LGBT person without their permission, you shouldn’t discuss someone’s mental health with others at the office. Although I generally encourage people to be open about mental illness if they feel they can be, that has to be on their terms, not someone else’s. If you’re concerned that someone’s mental health problems are causing them to be unable to do their work, do the same thing you’d (probably) do anytime a coworker isn’t pulling their weight: talk to them about it in a kind and considerate way rather than going straight to the boss.

(An exception to this is if you’re worried that someone may harm themselves or someone else. In that case, please call 911. )

When it comes to structural issues like ableism and stigma, no community can be an island, unfortunately. There will not be stigma-free workplaces until there is a stigma-free society. But the more power you have in a workplace, the more influence yo have over its culture.

Thank you to Kate for her donation and for this prompt. 

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Liked this post? Please consider donating so I can speak at conferences.

Occasional Link Roundup

Hello! Sorry for the intermittent posting. I would tell you all the things I’m doing that are causing the intermittent posting, but I wouldn’t want you to get too jealous. So instead, here’s some stuff I’m going to be doing soon that need some help:

First of all, on December 14 here in NYC, there’s going to be a big secular solstice celebration. The idea behind it is really cool: basically to help create a secular holiday tradition and strengthen the atheist community. There are obviously atheists who proclaim that they don’t need traditions or communities or any of that other pseudo-religious garbage (I’m being sarcastic), but for many of us, a sense of continuity and belonging is important for our emotional health. So, I think this is a cool idea.

Anyway, the Kickstarter has a few days left and has almost reached its goal, so if this interests you, please donate! And if you live in/near NYC, you should go. I’ll be there.

Second, Skepticon 6 is coming up: November 15-17 in Springfield, Missouri. They still need help raising money and there’s a matching offer on the table during the month of October, so consider doing that! I’m doing a workshop on Friday (probably at 4 PM) about good sexual communication at cons (a relevant topic these days if there ever was one). I’m also bringing my now-even-larger Cards Against Humanity set, so those of you who recall how awesome WiS2 was in this regard should be very excited.

Links:

1. A post over at the Fementalists’ blog discusses gaslighting and sexual assault (TW):

Your gaslighting may be to ‘calm me down’; to defeat the anger, because, to you, that’s helpful. I get that. But my anger is not what needs defeating. My resigned, depressed apathy does. The anger is valid. The anger is me knowing I did not and do not deserve it. Don’t you want to help me be that person? It might be disquieting for you as I grow into it, but the alternative is that I stay as the person who believes it was not rape. That is the person who tells herself, every day, when she feels like fighting back to anyone or anything at all: shh. Be quiet. Don’t make any noise. Don’t make any fuss.  People might think you are not okay with being raped.

2. Mia McKenzie is getting tired of the term “ally.”

“Ally” cannot be a label that someone stamps onto you–or, god forbid, that you stamp on to yourself—so you can then go around claiming it as some kind of identity. It’s not an identity. It’s a practice. It’s an active thing that must be done over and over again, in the largest and smallest ways, every day.

3. On Disrupting Dinner Parties (a great blog I’ve just discovered), Rebecca writes about an experience with someone who did consent very well.

I was completely blown away by this experience. It was the first time I had ever seen consent practices so explicitly modeled. I want to pass it on. I want to take all aspects of this interaction (except maybe the nudity) out of the counter-culture setting and bring them to the mainstream. Next time I want a kiss, I want to say something like, “I’d like to kiss you” or “Would you like me to kiss you?” to show others how deliciously sexy consent can be! Articles or documentaries or blogs about what rape culture looks like and what not to do, or even about consent culture and “how to practice consent”, are nothing compared to the power of modeling.

What if the movies and the TV shows showed that perfect dreamy first kiss with one party saying “I’d like to kiss you” then waiting for a verbal or physical response before their lips meet? How different would our culture be?

4. Positive psychology presumes that an individual’s circumstances don’t matter, only how one thinks about those circumstances. That makes it ideal for privileged people but not so much for everyone else:

In its pencil and paper and online self assessments, positive psychology assumes that it is personal characteristics that are being assessed and that they are modifiable with the advice and exercises that the workshops and the books provide. The emphasis on character and character-building is neo-Victorian. Positive psychology assumes that life is a level playing field except for the advantages or disadvantages that people have created for themselves. It is not circumstances that matter,  so much as what we think about them.

5. I hadn’t thought of this before, but all those posts you see after a person of color does something cool that collect tweets of people being super racist about it? Those might actually sort of perpetuate the problem:

The racism this story depicts is binary. It’s on or off, is you is or is you ain’t this racist, and that encourages the idea that racism isn’t something you personally do or are. It’s something other people do. You don’t do that, right? So you aren’t racist!

But any colored folk can tell you that’s not how racism works. Everybody is a little racist. There are hundreds of learned reactions to different groups of people to unlearn, not to mention the areas of society where racist sentiment is implicit instead of explicit, like zoning laws or the prison industrial complex or the war on drugs. It’s in all of us. We’re gonna have to live with that racism until we fix it and our selves, and viewing racism as a binary personality choice doesn’t allow for that.

6. At Feminspire, Madison explains why straight people need to stop telling queer people to be “grateful” for Macklemore (or for allies in general):

This is exactly why we have an issue with the pedestal Macklemore has been given. The very same people who applaud him for risking nothing with a song about marriage equality are telling queer people shut up and take what they can get. When we speak about the inequality evidenced by the silencing of our concerns while straight, cisgender people can talk about the same things and be called heroes for it; we get called morons and told not to discriminate.

7. Lucia writes about a really gross M&Ms ad that uses the suggestion of sexual assault as its theme (TW):

The entire premise of this advertisement is a classic reflection of real-life scenarios of sexual violence, and it’s being used, just like so many other companies, to try and sell products. An anthropomorphized M&M is “warned” about the predatory nature of a woman who “just cannot help herself,” then sets up her M&M friend to be taken away from the party by this predatory woman, who then leads that M&M away to her car, locks the doors, and attacks him. The last frame of the advert is the a shot of the parked car, with the poor little red M&M screaming.

8. Finally, the letter you have wanted to send to everyone you argue with online:

It’s with very real regret that we must inform you that your petition to play devil’s advocate has been denied. Thank you for your interest in the devil’s advocate position; we realize that this is disappointing and would like to assure you that your candidacy was considered very carefully. As you know, we receive an overwhelming number of requests to play devil’s advocate every day, and while we would like to accommodate them all, we simply don’t have the resources to do so.

9. Mitchell expertly skewers everyone whining about young people these days:

This is the generation that is scandalized by “hookup culture” as though today’s students are actually hooking up any more than they did when they were students (we aren’t, but fact-checking has never been your strong suit, guys, so we’ll try not to take your investigative inadequacies personally). This is the generation that talks about our generation’s lack of empathy and personal responsibility with straight faces while the companies they run bold-facedly lie about budgets for their employees, and dodge their responsibility to provide benefits.

[...]This generation deigns, so kindly, to lecture their children on taking responsibility.

10. On Storify, @ProFeministBro discusses the importance of teaching young men about consent, and Stephanie painstakingly documents my illustrative argument with a Facebook employee from this weekend.

11. Amanda has some tips for men who feel compelled to harass and abuse feminists online.

Read books written by female authors. Try to do it in a non-defensive pose. Instead of flipping through the pages, trying to find what’s wrong with it and why she’s clearly an overrated writer whose reputation was created by desperate women trying to prove something, read the book like you would a man’s book. If it helps, pretend the author’s a man until you’ve calmed down and started to enjoy the book. Start with Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf, and work up to your Alice Munros and Margaret Atwoods.

12. s.e. smith points out something contradictory in societal attitudes toward mental illness and medication:

At the same time that society hates mental illness, though, it’s surprisingly vocal when it comes to the use of psychiatric medications and therapy to manage mental illness. Taking pills makes you ‘weak’ and not able to ‘just handle it,’ while therapy is useless and suspect, something that people are only brainwashed into thinking is useful. People who pay to talk to someone for an hour (or more) a week are clearly, well, you know. Crazy, and the entire mental health profession is obviously raking it in by deceiving all these people with their silly notions of ‘treatment’ and ‘management.’

The disdainful attitude when it comes to managing mental illness is at utter odds with social attitudes about mental illness. If crazy people are so awful, if we’re told that it’s ‘okay to be crazy so long as you act sane in public,’ how are we supposed to be less crazy if we can’t actually get any treatment? This paradoxical attitude is widely in force in society and people don’t seem to realise how absurd it is; if they think that, for example, schizophrenia is a scary and dangerous disease that turns people into monsters, uh, wouldn’t they want people with schizophrenia to be able to access whichever treatments help them manage their mental health condition most effectively?

13. FInally, the Belle Jar has an amazing post on the lies depression tells you. All of these resounded with me, but especially this one:

Everything is your fault.

If you plan a picnic and it rains, it’s your fault. You should have been more thorough when you checked the weather. You should have learned to be an amateur meteorologist so that you could better read the clouds. You should have packed a canopy. If you go out for dinner, for your once-in-a-blue-moon, hire-a-babysitter-and-wear-a-nice-dress date and the food or service or conversation is anything less than exceptional, it’s your fault. You should have read more restaurant reviews, should have asked friends for more recommendations, should have prepared cue cards with talking points. If someone is unkind to you, it’s your fault. You should have smiled more, been more gracious, tried harder to be whatever it was that they needed in that moment.

Everything is your fault.

What good stuff have you read/written this week?

I’m Blogothonning for the Secular Student Alliance!

It's SSA Week! Yay!

This may be naive given my recent recovery from a spell of writer’s block, but this Sunday, I’ll be doing a blogathon to raise money for the Secular Student Alliance with fellow badasses Kate Donovan, Chana Messinger, and Mike Mei. SSA Week is the organization’s annual fundraiser, and this year two supporters have pledged a $250,000 matching donation.

There are many reasons to support the SSA, such as the excellent training it provides for young activists and the support it gives to secular students in parts of the country where atheism is extremely stigmatized.

I love the SSA for these reasons and also for much more personal ones. The SSA is the reason I’m involved in this movement to begin with. It’s indirectly responsible for most of my fantastic friends and partners, for the success of my writing, and for the fact that I’m here on FtB now. Some of my best memories from the past year or so have been of SSA events, of people I met through the SSA, and of conferences I’ve traveled to thanks to my involvement in the movement. And the awesome things that have happened to my life because of all this have helped me mostly avoid depression for almost a year.

SO. That’s quite tangential to why you should support the SSA, but I wanted to share it anyway because it’s not entirely irrelevant. It’s not just any organization that could create such a supportive, welcoming environment, that could bring such cool people together to do activism. There are many organizations that are important and that I donate to regularly, but few have been so important to my own life and personal development.

Now, the blogathon! Here’s how it’s going to work.

1. I’ll be publishing a post every hour from 10 AM to 6 PM central time this Sunday, May 5. No, they will not be as long as my normal posts. :P
2. If you pledge at least $10 to the SSA, I will do my absolute best to write a post about anything you choose! It can really be anything, even personal stuff about me (fuck knows I’m not modest about that). So, if you donate at least $10, let me know that you did so and tell me what you’d like me to write about! You can donate here. (Also, I know I said anything, but please for the love of cheezits don’t make me write about thermodynamics or British politics or something. Nobody wants to see that.)
3. If you cannot donate at least $10, you’re still welcome to submit suggestions for posts! I’m going to need them.

This is my first blogathon ever, so we’ll see how it goes. My writing style is usually more like, sit on an idea for days until I’m thinking about it so much that I can’t focus on anything else and sit down and suddenly produce a 1,500-word post, so this will be quite different.

Wish me luck, and please give me post suggestions and, most importantly, donate!