Numerous companies celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month, as well as other related months such as Suicide Prevention Month or Workplace Safety Month. These are all excellent opportunities to emphasize the importance of mental health and related topics and challenges as they relate to the workplace. However, there is an immense need to continue messaging and action around those topics.

Organizations are constantly sending both implicit and explicit messages to employees. Sometimes, those messages are conflicting or ambiguous, making it difficult for workers to truly understand whether the communication is authentic. Employees are challenged with deciphering messages that are unclear and often find it difficult to trust that the organization really cares about their mental health and well-being. Unfortunately, this is common with organizational communication. There are several layers that further contribute to the reluctance to trust and listen to the messages from their organization (e.g., organizational politics, a lack of trust, stigma, and fear) – adding additional barriers to support seeking and resource utilization.

Communicating Genuine Care

Clear and consistent communication is imperative to demonstrate genuine care and support. Far too often, organizations take a “check the box” approach to providing support, which tends to involve offering one training or introducing a service, resource, or program once in celebration of one of those months or even in response to an issue or tragedy. As a result, the implicit message to employees is that support is only being provided because the organization has to, or support is only available during that timeframe, or even only to those who are in deep crisis. In response, workers often find it hard to trust that the organization really is there to help and wants to support.

Consequently, organizations must reflect on how they are communicating about mental health, the frequency or consistency of those messages, and who is sending the messages within the organization. Employees will likely not feel deeply supported by their organization when…

  • Mental health is talked about only in reference to crises or one-time events.
  • Mental health is only discussed following an event or issue or at orientation.
  • If only the highest level of leadership discusses mental health but not an individuals’ direct supervisors and peers.
  • Messages are not matched with action. This means that the organization says that they want employees to prioritize their mental health but does not offer resources or opportunities for time to do so, etc. Another common example is when organizations tell employees to seek support when needed but do not make it clear how, when, or with whom to do so.

Being Intentional About Mental Health

To ensure employees trust and buy into the organization’s messaging about available mental health support, communication must be intentional. The organization should continuously reiterate why mental health is important, what is available to employees, and how they can seek and receive the support they need. By consistently reminding workers that support is not only available but that the organization genuinely wants employees to utilize those resources, organizations can cultivate a culture in which seeking help is normalized. In addition to regular announcements and reminders about resources, organizations should identify ways to authentically check in with workers beyond events and training. Direct supervisors are essential to this aspect of normalizing mental health-related communication at work because they will likely spend far more time with the employees and know them better.

Suppose the CEO, who an employee has never directly interacted with, makes statements about the importance of mental health. In that case, they may appreciate the message or disregard it – regardless of which one, the employee will likely not feel as though they really care about their personal wellness. However, when a direct supervisor checks in with an employee on a regular basis, not only in times of crisis, they are likely to feel personally cared about. It is important to note that these conversations do not need to be high-level or even in-depth discussions about psychology or mental health. Instead, spending time building rapport and then consistently reaching out to ask how their personal and professional lives are going will be more impactful than a single event, month, or training. In order for messages promoting utilization and engagement with offered resources and programs to be viewed as authentic, employees first need to establish relationships at work that they trust in order to listen.

Continuing Mental Health Awareness Month Throughout the Year

While taking the time to acknowledge Mental Health Awareness Month is a great approach to highlighting mental health at work, unless that is coupled with consistency, demonstrating genuine care, and action, communication will fall short. More importantly, employees may fail to seek and receive the support they need. In an extension of Mental Health Awareness Month, organizations can continue supporting employee mental health by reflecting on the following questions:

  • Does leadership spend time building the relationships necessary for mental health-related messages to be as effective as possible?
    • If not, when can they spend a few minutes each week with the people they oversee to check in with them?
    • Or, how can the organization dedicate more effort and time into establishing rapport and getting to know each other?
  • Are we being consistent in discussing mental health?
  • Is it clear how an employee can seek support through the offered resources?

Your responses to these questions will then guide how you adjust your communication strategy to help generate effective, sustainable cultural change that promotes mental health throughout the organization.