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Starting the Conversation: Mental Health First Aid at Work

This piece was originally published on Linda’s Corner Office blogRead it here.

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. – Annie Dillard

The iconic designer Kate Spade hid her depression and anxiety behind her bright smile and colorful, eponymous brand. That made her death by suicide earlier this year even more difficult for her family, friends, coworkers and legions of loyal customers. In the wake of her death, Kate Spade New York announced that it would donate more than $1 million to suicide prevention and mental health awareness. More recently, the company joined forces with the National Council to train its human resources staff and 150 corporate employees in Mental Health First Aid at Work.

We spend roughly a third of our adult lives working, and Mental Health First Aid at Work can be the lynchpin in creating a mentally healthy workplace, one in which individuals feel valued, supported and respected. Many workplaces have a defibrillator and have trained their employees in how to use it. They know how to summon emergency help for a physical ailment. But you are much more likely to see someone in the throes of a mental health or addiction crisis than you are to see someone having a heart attack.

Mental Health First Aid helps us learn how to start a conversation about mental health and substance use problems and reach out to our colleagues in need. This is not just good for our health – it’s good for the bottom line. One in five American adults has a mental illness, and 40 percent of them take time off work because of it. Depression and anxiety alone result in $1 trillion in lost productivity to the global economy. The good news is that every $1 in treatment returns $4 in improved health and productivity. We haven’t a moment to lose because not addressing our problems on the job is literally making us sick.

A survey conducted by Glamour magazine asked more than 1,300 women how their mental health issues, or a colleague’s, affected their careers and workplace happiness. Among the findings:

  1. 58 percent of women reported feeling stressed more than half the time they are at work.
  2. 53 percent said they don’t feel comfortable talking about their mental health concerns with others.
  3. Only 14 percent said they would speak to someone in their office if they felt anxious or depressed.

Workplace stress and the inability to talk to someone about it are taking their toll. Twenty-eight percent of all survey respondents said their mental health had affected their ability to do their job, including 41 percent of those who are 18 to 29 years old.

Brittany King was one of them. She cycled through a series of unsatisfying jobs before seeing a psychiatrist who diagnosed her with depression. “It was as if I had been in handcuffs – physically and mentally,” King said. “My undiagnosed depression kept me in a haze.” King is now a career coach, helping others find work they love.

We must be able to connect with one another at work. In a separate survey, Gallup found that only four in 10 employees feel that someone at their job cares about them as a person. This reflects a level of disengagement that may result in presenteeism, absenteeism and accidents on the job, even for people without diagnosed mental health problems.

But experts agree that having someone to talk to can help, and that someone may be your supervisor. Research published this month in BMJ Open found that having a supportive supervisor may help employees with depression miss fewer days of work. “Support is needed for managers to directly support employees to feel open and comfortable in discussing mental health issues,” the authors said.

Mental Health First Aid at Work does exactly that. We have trained companies across the United States in almost every sector. After training in Mental Health First Aid, employees report increased confidence in their ability to recognize signs of someone who may be dealing with a mental health or substance use challenge, provide them with reassurance and information and connect them to appropriate professional help and other resources. Many who take a Mental Health First Aid course find the strategies useful in dealing with their own challenges, as well.

To learn more about MHFA at Work, visit and complete the inquiry form. And be sure to tell me how you’re addressing mental health concerns in the workplace.

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