Making Space for Mental Health at Work

mental health at work

The sustained stress, anxiety, isolation, and burnout of the pandemic affected mental health for so very many of us, especially for essential workers, parents who had to manage their kids’ schooling as well as their own work, and people who lost loved ones.

Having your mental health impact your work is nothing new, but what is new is how open we are about it, and how much we know about mental health that it is in many ways no different than being physically ill. You know, it’s not a defect, it’s a normal part of being a human.

Since our work places have become our homes, our hand has been forced in that we have no choice but to bring our mental health with us to work. And because we’ve been invited into their homes, via Zoom, and we’ve all been reminded of our humanity so much in the last few years, we’ve also had to consider the mental health of the people we work with in a way that we likely hadn’t done before.

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I actually got an email from a listener named Nina about this very thing. She writes:

“‘I’m wondering how to handle situations where employees share their mental health struggles. The younger generation seems so open about this and while I think overall it’s so good that we are dealing with mental health issues, as a boss it’s a really hard thing to handle. Especially when the work has to be done and they are paid to do the work. I know that sounds so harsh!”

First of all, Nina, I get it. I remember when I last had a corporate job I was interviewing someone to for an entry-level position. She was lovely and smart and personable–she sent me a plant after her interview. I ended up hiring someone else but stayed in touch with this woman. And six months later she said that she hadn’t been able to work for the last two weeks because she’d broken up with her boyfriend. I felt for her–I’d had one of those utterly devastating breakups in my early 20s, too–but I also was like, ooh, I’m so glad I didn’t hire you!

So I completely understand that thinking that says, “I empathize, but the work still needs to get done.” 

My first tip for Nina and for anyone who is talking to colleagues, employees, or even bosses a bout their mental health, is to validate the person who’s sharing

Saying things like, “That sounds hard,” or “It makes sense that you’re feeling this way” can go such a long way to helping someone feel a whole lot better. (And for more on how to Be there for Others, go back 6 episodes to hear the series I put out last week on this very subject.)

You also want to point out what support systems there may be available to them, whether that’s from HR or the benefits program or maybe a support group, and encourage them to use them. 

And if you work directly with this person, you also want to be honest

Not brutally honest, but tactfully honest–about the work that still needs to be done. Nina could say something like, “I understand that this is hard and I support you doing what it takes to feel better. On the other hand, there are still things that need to be done–can we brainstorm some ways to keep the work moving forward that also give you more space to take care of yourself?”

You don’t have to figure it out all on your own, and unless the person you’re talking with is really struggling, they likely have ideas that they may not feel comfortable to share unless they’re asked. 

It’s super helpful to think about how you would want to be treated in the same situation–and maybe, you work for yourself and you are in this situation! And so you need to have a conversation with yourself. 

Sometimes the person whose mental health you need to make space for at work will be you

When you are feeling like your mental health is impacting your experience and performance in your own work, the most important step is to acknowledge how you’re feeling. Too often we try to plow on through and while that seem convenient, it typically only results in things backing up on you and potentially getting worse later. After all, what’s been revealed can be healed.  

If you’re feeling like you need more space in your life to foster your mental health, ask: 


  1. What can you minimize, outsource, ignore, or outright say no to? 
  2. What kind of support might you need? Is it time to go back to therapy? Is it time to reach out to friends? Or to re-commit to doing whatever it is that you know really helps you feel like yourself?
  3. Are there deadlines or other expectations that you need to rejigger, and resulting conversations you need to have with co-workers? This is a really important piece to alleviating any guilt you might be having about not being as productive as you might typically be.
  4. And, finally, can you re-connect to the aspects of your work that are grounding and/or inspiring to you? Remembering the value that you’re creating through your work–whether for yourself, your family, your clients, your audience–can help you re-frame some of the aspects of your work that have been weighing you down. This isn’t code to just do whatever it takes to keep going. I absolutely condone you doing less. It’s just the remembering why you care in the first place can help shift your thinking and your energy away from what’s weighing you down and toward what lifts you up. If you’re not all that passionate about your job, that’s totally fine. But your efforts matter to someone–remembering that helps. 

Daily Tiny Assignment

Your tiny assignment is to give yourself your own little mental health check-in by asking yourself, how am I really doing? And writing down your answer. Then you can run through the four questions I just shared for yourself – what can I minimize, outsource, delegate, or say no to? What support do I need? What conversations do I need to have? And what about my work inspires me? 

Being there for your own mental health at work will help you be there for others’, too. 

And I’ll leave you with this: 

We all need a little extra grace right about now. We’ve been through it! We can’t be expected to be kicking ass and recuperating at the same time. Maybe we could all lower our expectations about the speed in which work is done and, to an extent, the quality that we expect. Good enough really is good enough. 

Come back tomorrow, when I’m interviewing Damon Brown, author of Career Remix: Getting the Gig You Want with the Skills You’ve Got, about things to consider before you quit your job. 


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