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November 3, 2022 | Blog

Make it OK to Not Be OK in the Workplace

By Jacob Christenson, PhD, LMFT – Covenant Family Solutions

distressed man sitting in a park

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and it is important to remember that mental health issues exist in every person and every environment, including our employees and their workspaces. When you “clock in” to work for the day, it’s not like mental illness magically takes a break. Almost 50% of the people in the United States will experience a mental illness in their lifetime — that includes employees at organizations of all sizes and across all industries.

What happens when mental health is ignored?

When mental health needs are ignored in a workplace, it equates to loss of productivity because of presenteeism (at work, but unproductive) or absenteeism. Stress also has physical consequences that can easily turn into recurrent sick days and hospital stays when left untreated. Ignoring these needs can negatively impact a business’s ability to recruit top talent.

When a workplace has a trend of poor mental health, it leads to higher turnover rates. This puts stress on remaining employees who are now taking on extra responsibilities. In addition, those who leave act like a dark cloud over the company’s reputation. From an external perspective, top talent searching for opportunities may opt for a company with a better mental health reputation. If you choose to not focus on the mental health of your organization, chances are you will not be the “better” option for individuals looking to take the next step in their careers.

Is the workplace the cause or trigger of mental illness?

It’s important to recognize all the factors that can drive down an organization’s mental health. For example, workloads that do not align with the resources available. This can be too much or too little work. Regularly assessing the amount of work on each employee’s plate to ensure it is appropriate can make a huge difference.

Pay attention to what tasks employees have on their plates as well. If someone has monotonous or unpleasant tasks when they are able and willing to help in other areas, they will feel undervalued as an employee.

Other contributors to mental illness at work include conflicts within a role or between two employees, lack of work/life balance, undesirable working conditions, lack of recognition, and lack of positive work relationships. All these factors can be easily ignored, so employers must make a conscious effort to stay aware of the wellness culture in the office.

How can employers be proactive?

Start by making it OK to not be OK in the workplace. The Iowa’s Healthiest State Initiative is leading the Make it OK campaign for the state. At, Iowa employers can register to become a Make It OK workplace. Efforts to #StopTheStigma around mental illness are step one in ensuring employees feel safe to speak up when they are feeling overwhelmed, stressed or upset.

Employers should be proactive instead of reactive. This means eliminating those areas of concern that contribute to poor mental health instead of waiting for burnout and turnover to happen. For example, implementing better communication practices can make a huge difference. This initiative starts with leadership and trickles down through the company’s organizational chart. Not to be cliché, but leadership should be leading by example.

Open communication is important in a workplace. It contributes to a feeling of belonging, value, and gives employees opportunities to have some control over their own situation. Supervisors should create and maintain a safe and secure way for their direct employees to bring concerns to them. These discussions will help issues to surface and allow for positive changes to take place. Changes that will affect employees should be presented to them so that they are aware and up to speed. Nobody appreciates being the last to know.

Take the first step

If these needs have been overlooked for quite some time, then it may feel overwhelming to try to sort them out. You might be wondering where to start and how to start. The easiest first step is to take an honest look at the current state of mental wellness within your organization. Reach out for help from an independent party if needed. From there, the opportunities for growth are endless.

This article originally appeared in the Corridor Business Journal.