Culture & Engagement, Workplace Well-Being

How to be a Better Mental Health Ally in the Workplace

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Photo by lalesh aldarwish on

When I was first diagnosed with depression (later confirmed to be bipolar disorder), I struggled with whether I should be open about my condition in the workplace.

Ultimately I decided to disclose my condition to my supervisor as well as her supervisor (the CFO) since I knew my health was beginning to have an impact on my work.

The CFO’s reaction?:

“Thanks. Just let me know if you plan on jumping (in the pond).”

1) I don’t work there anymore.

2) This experience left me skeptical of sharing with others in a workplace setting.

In the United States, 1 in 5 adults live with a mental illness, which means that it’s very likely that someone in your life struggles with their mental health. Many of us are considered high-functioning, meaning we lead normal, even successful lives despite our diagnoses.

Since these are invisible illnesses, when an employee becomes symptomatic it can appear as simply a behavioral or performance issue to the naked eye. If you don’t have first-hand experience with mental illness, it can be intimidating when approached with the topic in the workplace. Becoming an effective mental health ally is easier than you may think—here are a few effective ways you can be supportive to those around you:

Acknowledgement and Understanding One of the worst possible things you can do is be dismissive or downplay an individual’s struggles (“leave it at home”, “quit being so emotional”, etc.). A mental illness is not simply baggage one can choose to leave at the door; mental illnesses are valid, and are not excuses. Additionally, you may be legally required to provide an employee with a reasonable accommodation to perform the essential functions of their job if requested due to a mental health impairment. Everyone’s mental health experience is different, and it is not your duty to diagnose, verify, or compare one’s illness to another’s.

You Don’t Need to Have All the Answers You are (probably) not a doctor. When someone opens up to you it can be scary and overwhelming for both parties. Please know that this person is sharing because they feel safe and that they can trust you; they’re not looking to be treated, they’re looking for empathy and understanding. Sometimes the best way to show your support is to simply lend an ear.

Watch Your Language Yes, I know you’re “depressed” that Game of Thrones is ending and you think Suzy in Accounting is “OCD” for continually rejecting your expense reports. When you use such dismissive language you not only sound ableist, but these depictions are often inaccurate and can be offensive or annoying to those of us who live with these disorders.

Understand Your Resources Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are one of the most valuable, yet vastly underutilized benefits that employers offer. While EAPs are increasingly available at organizations of all sizes, only 6.9% of eligible participants end up using them. The most common reasons for low EAP utilization include lack of visibility and the stigma around seeking help. When managers and HR Professionals are equipped with an understanding and easy access to these resources we make progress towards normalizing and getting full value from these types of benefits.

When employees with mental illnesses feel supported, they’re enabled to reach their full potential through increased engagement and productivity. While these tasks may seem small, they can be critical towards ensuring a happier and healthier workplace.


If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, please seek medical help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free, 24-hour hotline, at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) which will connect to the crisis center nearest to you.





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