Skip to content

What It Means to Create an Accessible Workplace for People with Mental Illness

In any given year, roughly 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness. In a survey this January of employees in my industry – public relations – 60 percent of respondents reported that they had been diagnosed with mental ill health. Yet in most workplaces, mental health is still a fringe issue.

This doesn’t just impact quality of life (although it would be bad enough if it did); it’s also bad business. Employers who create workplaces that are bad for mental health are 1) missing out on the talents of all of us who are mentally ill and 2) making work harder for all their employees, and eroding productivity (i.e. profits) in the process.

Employers need to make some fundamental changes to how they think about mental health in the workplace. And a lot of these changes would also benefit, you know, all employees. Our brain chemistry may vary, but we’re all working with the same fundamental ingredients, and we’re all trying to negotiate some kind of work/life balance, whatever that is.

On a personal note: I have been incredibly fortunate to land at a workplace with colleagues, managers, and circumstances that are perfect for me. Lots of folks are less lucky than I am. This post is for them – or more specifically, their bosses or prospective bosses. 

Don’t say any variation of “We work hard and we play hard.” 

Don’t even have a workplace where this could be construed as true. Anyone who has been in the workforce for longer than 30 seconds knows that this means exactly two things: 

  1. Drinking is probably a major part of your workplace “culture.” You distract employees with toys and “perks” to entice them to spend too much time at the office. 
  2. Your employees have no sense of work/life balance or protected personal time, and their work is suffering as a result. No one likes producing bad work. It’s probably why your employees are drinking so much.

I once was in an interview where phrases like “play to win” and “high performers only” kept being used. Not particularly wanting the job, I joked, “This all sounds like code for ‘Our employees cry in the bathroom every day.’”

Reader, my would-be manager looked me in the eye and said, “I’m not going to say that doesn’t happen.” 

My outlook for that company is…not optimistic!

Make employees feel safe disclosing. 

Don’t ever make assumptions about someone’s mental health, or, worse, armchair diagnose. But make sure your employees know that if they want to disclose, they can. Put it in your company handbook. Make it part of HR presentations and employee onboarding. 

Make sure employees know where they stand. 

Who will be aware of what they’ve disclosed? Should HR staff turn over, what will the new HR staff know? To what accommodations are your employees entitled? 

I sense that many organizations fear that publicizing this information will result in too many employees “cashing in” on accommodations. To that I say: 1) That is so much better than employees not taking the accommodations they need and quitting, getting fired, or simply producing inferior work. 2) No one is trying to bilk your company. We’re not going to reward your empathy by skimming off the top of some imaginary stack of cash. 3) That line of thinking is, at its heart, simply cruel.

Make it OK to take mental health days.

Do a search in your inbox right now for the phrase “mental health day.” Has anyone ever used it? If not, lead by example and be the first. By the way, there’s ample evidence that taking time off makes you more productive.

Get working hours under control.

Make weekends and vacations real vacations and weekends. Provide comp time when long hours are necessary. Don’t reward people who forfeit their personal lives for the sake of their work. (By the way, that’s a major way inequality gets reinforced in the workplace. It punishes not just mentally ill people, but working parents – especially working mothers – and anyone else who simply isn’t able to drop their personal lives.) 

Again, lead by example and use your vacation time. If you’re a man who becomes a father, take every second of your paternity leave. If I see you back in your office in less than a week, when your kid is still all squished up from birth and looks like Winston Churchill, and you don’t have a damn good reason to be there (and “I want to be a part of this pitch” does not qualify), I will personally yell at you. 

If you’ve been at the office for more than 8.5 hours, go home and tell everyone else to do the same. Is anyone actually getting more done, or is everyone just putting on a show for everyone else’s benefit?

And if you offer unlimited vacation time, make sure you’ve created a culture that doesn’t force everyone to justify their vacation time or shame people who take “too much.” Consider setting a minimum amount of vacation that everyone must take. 

Help your employees keep things in perspective. 

I take my work seriously, but sometimes you need to put your computer down for 30 seconds, walk outside, look up at the sky, and say to yourself, “It’s just blog posts,” as you count your breaths and try not to cry.

Very, very few jobs are life or death. Very, very few workplaces benefit from telling their employees that their jobs are life or death. Telling someone that a panic attack in a client meeting will ruin their career is a great way to cause someone to have a panic attack in a client meeting. Telling someone that taking time off for their mental health will make them look lazy and stall their career progress is a great way to make them feel exhausted and stop making career progress. 

Lead by example.

I have to hit this point again. It is so much easier for your employees to believe that they can be good employees and care for their mental health if they’re aware that their leaders and managers are also putting effort into protecting their own mental health. 

If you’re a leader who struggles with mental health issues, and if you feel safe doing so, let the people beneath you see that you can both have mental illness and succeed. I will never forget, when I first began struggling with panic attacks, hearing a VP offhandedly joke about their Xanax prescription, and realizing that they needed help, too. I will never forget confiding in a mentor about depression and learning that my mentor struggled with depression of their own. 

If you want us to bring our whole selves to the workplace, the workplace has to be a place where it’s OK for us to be human.

Trust your employees.

You’ll notice that trust is a recurring theme. If you don’t trust your employees, why are you even paying them? You’re making yourself and them miserable.

An employee who is protecting their mental health is not the same thing as a lazy employee. In fact, when my mental health is a mess, my work is the absolute last thing to suffer. My biggest fear – I’ll just go ahead and bury this several hundred words deep in a tangentially related blog post – is that someday I will be so mentally ill that I won’t be able to work anymore. I will do anything to prevent that from happening. I want to be good at this job even more than you want me to make you money. Please trust me.

When you have competent, professional people who prioritize their work correctly, you can trust them to know when they do and don’t need to be in the office.

Alison Green, “Ask a Manager: is my employee taking advantage of the flexibility I give her?”

Listen to your employees when they tell you what they need. 

Sometimes it’s for no one to give them a hard time when they’re adjusting to a medication and need to nap at their desk over lunch. Sometimes it’s a quiet corner where they can take 10 minutes by themselves during the office holiday party. Sometimes it’s a bit of reassurance that if they start to panic during a presentation, one of their teammates will have their back. Sometimes it’s just a desk near a window with a bit of natural light. Sometimes it’s a systemic adjustment, like introducing remote work flexibility or abolishing open offices, which are pretty universally loathed anyway. Most of these things aren’t particularly expensive, and they can make a world of difference.

Make it clear where the goalposts are. 

Your mentally ill employees want to prove that they are still good at their jobs. Do they know how to do that? Are you distracting them with minor tasks that don’t have much of an impact on their performance reviews? Be frank about what actually matters in your employees’ work and what is just a bonus, and trust them to triage and prioritize as needed. 

Do your employees know how their day-to-day work aligns with leadership’s business objectives? Are there disconnects between where they’re investing effort and where they’re making the most impact?  Once everyone understands what the real priorities are, things will run more smoothly and everyone involved will be happier.

Wrapping it up: Why bother?

Doing this right will provide four big rewards:

  1. Your employees will be more productive and more functional.
  2. You’ll expand your hiring pool. There’s a lot of talent out there that your current workplace culture may be scaring away from your company!
  3. Your employees will be more loyal and more devoted to your company. I can personally vouch for this. Every courtesy a manager has extended me; every time someone I work with has embraced who I am, including my mental illness; every small gesture I’ve received I have paid back by channeling my passion into my work and ardently striving to be the best employee I can.
  4. You may very well save a life. You will definitely have improved the quality of life for the people who work for you. You’ve done the right thing, damn it. What more do you need to know?

Featured photo by Georgie Cobbs on Unsplash.

Published inCulture

Get new posts from me in your inbox.

© Mary Gaulke 2023