An obvious fact: It’s impossible to turn a mental health issue on and off with the snap of a finger.

Yet somehow, it’s become normal to expect people to leave their mental health at the door when they show up for work.

It’s an unrealistic demand for the approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. who will experience a mental illness in a given year. And also for the 1 in 5 employees who are highly engaged and at risk of burnout. Plus: It’s bad for business.

Research from the American Institute of Stress showed that “job stress costs U.S. industry more than $300 billion a year in absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity, and medical, legal and insurance costs.”

$300 billion:
The amount that job stress costs U.S. industry a year in absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity, and medical, legal and insurance costs.
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A workplace that ignores the existence of stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues isn’t as productive as it could be.

What actually gives companies a competitive advantage, according to experts: Creating a culture that lets employees take time away from work to care for themselves.

“When people take a mental health day when they need it, they can recharge and they can come back to work feeling refreshed,” Patricia Thompson, Ph.D., a corporate psychologist and management consultant, tells Shine. “And then when they’re feeling good, they’re more engaged with the work that they’re doing and the business is only going to benefit.”

Employees are already waking up to the fact that taking a break to care for their mental health can aid—not hinder—their ambition in the workplace. In a recent survey of 1,774 Shine members, 95% of people said taking a mental health day would improve their performance at work. But only 28% said they feel comfortable requesting a mental health day at work.

Now, it’s up to employers and company leadership to close this gap.

Here, a few ways to start creating a more mentally healthy workplace:

Focus On ‘Psychological Safety’

Business leaders tend to focus heavily on creating productive, efficient workplaces—but a psychologically safe workplace is just as important.

"Psychological safety" is the idea that people can be their authentic selves—without risk or fear of consequence—at work, and it's an important factor to consider when developing company culture.

“Research has shown that it actually helps organizations because people are more likely to speak up without fear of some sort of reprimand,” Thompson explains. “And because people can get more ideas on the table if they’re speaking up, problems are less likely to fester so it’s associated with better team performance.”

Psychological safety is the idea that people can be their authentic selves—without risk or fear of consequence—at work.
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It also creates an environment where employees don't feel the need to pretend—whether it's about how they're feeling or what they're going through—saving them from additional emotional labor and making it easier for them to advocate for their needs.

"If you have support for being yourself in the workplace, you don't have to use emotional labor to pretend to be someone you're not or put on a different face at work versus at home," Thompson says. "If you're in a safe environment, you'll have less anxiety about asking for a mental health day."

Make it OK to Talk About Mental Health

One of the first ways to create a psychologically safe workplace is making mental health part of the conversation. According to our survey, 67% of employees would have an easier time taking a mental health day if company leadership encouraged it.

The reality: A 2018 study by Accenture showed that only 14% of employees heard a senior leader talk about the importance of mental health.

"Have open conversations about mental health," Thompson says. "If you are someone who can stress the importance of it and really let employees know about resources that are available either within the organization or the community, then you can start a constructive dialgoue that's going to help people feel safer in this area."

Having conversations around how to best support your employees can also alleviate the sense that each team member is on their own to struggle with mental health or alone in having issues.

These conversations can kick off in a variety of ways. Perhaps it’s through one-on-one discussions, all-staff meetings with an expert, or starting a Slack channel for anyone interested in sharing resources. Or, maybe the first step is sending a survey to your employees to gain more information on their specific needs. Find what works for your team and implement it.

Understand Your Employee’s Differences

Stress, anxiety, and burnout manifest in different ways for different people, which means folks may tackle these issues differently, too. For some, burnout and depression may overlap–for others it may not—but recognizing that there's no right or wrong way to cope with stress and mental health issues is key.

It’s also important to recognize that people from marginalized backgrounds experience mental health issues at a disproportionate rate.

African Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems, according to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health.

Additionally, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Latino communities are less likely to ask for help when it comes to seeking mental health treatment.

LGBTQ individuals are almost 3 times more likely to experience a mental health condition—including depression and anxiety, NAMI also reports.

There are also nuances within these communities, too. “Black women are already feeling silenced in the workplace—or have different stereotypes,” Joy Harden Bradford, Ph.D., a psychologist and founder of Therapy for Black Girls, tells Shine. “Sometimes, black women are even less hesitant to take sick days when they’re physically ill, so a mental health day is definitely not something they’re going to take.”

Validate Their Decisions

One of the most powerful things a leader can do is validate that an employee's health is a top priority–and that includes mental health. Because mental health issues don't often have physical symptoms, it can be easy for an employee to doubt their own mental health issues or default to feeling selfish about taking time to hit pause.

By encouraging—and validating—an employee's initiative to care for themselves, you’re fostering a culture of support and understanding.

“The most important thing an employer can do is validate an employee's decision to take a mental health break," Anna Rowley, Ph.D., a psychologist and millennial wellbeing expert, tells Shine. "It’s underlying the positive choice that someone has made, a choice that was probably a hard one to make, but they made it nonetheless."

'The most important thing an employer can do is validate an employee's decision to take a mental health break.'
- Anna Rowley, Ph.D.
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If an employee requests a mental health day, Rowley recommends this simple yet powerful response: "This is great, and I love that you’re making this choice. Hopefully, you can help other people make a similar choice. Take a day and unplug from work."

Practice What You Preach

What follows talking the talk? You guessed it—it’s walking the walk.

“When as a leader you admit some vulnerability, it actually helps people see you as more relatable and more approachable," Thompson says. "It also contributes to creating a sense of psychological safety because if you’re modeling that you’re willing to be vulnerable, then people are more likely to be vulnerable as well."

It’s no secret that people watch what folks in leadership positions do, and by leading by example when it comes to self-care, you’re contributing to a larger culture of transparency and understanding around mental health issues.

What you'll get in return: Employees who feel empowered to hit pause when they need a mental break, making them more motivated, engaged, and productive overall when they are in the office.

“The reality is that people are typically the best at their work when they’re experiencing positive emotions,” Thompson says. “While someone isn’t obviously going to be feeling upbeat all the time, when they are feeling good they can be more productive. They’re better leaders, better colleagues, and they’re better with customers and clients.”

Self-care and business goals aren't mutually exclusive—they're mutually beneficial. And as a leader, you have the power to create a more psychologically safe workplace.

Head here to learn how Shine can help your team's wellbeing.


Read next: Your Complete Guide to Mental Health Days

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