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How to Support the Elephant in Your Office No One Acknowledges

Editor's Note

If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

You may not realize it, but there’s an elephant in your office. Most everyone sees the elephant; they know it appears in the break room around 11:30 a.m. and sits in the third cubicle on the left. However, no one really mentions it. No one acknowledges the presence of an elephant in a business setting unless there’s a deafening roar or stampede, and even then, no one talks openly about what just happened. They just exchange quizzical looks and whisper to each other behind closed doors.

Is there an elephant in your office?

There are nearly 44 million of them in the United States, so the odds are good that one of them shows up to your workplace every day. Is the elephant a single parent? Veteran? Person age 55 or older? Nope. The elephant in your office is a person experiencing mental illness.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. (43.8 million), or 18.5% experience mental illness in a given year and approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S. (9.8 million), or 4.0% experience a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with, or limits one or more major life activities.

So, why do managers, leaders and colleagues keep ignoring them? Why do they pretend to not see the elephant standing right in front of them until a coworker or major project gets trampled?






The reasons for not dealing with mental and emotional health
in the workplace are a bit different for everyone, but the outcomes are the same. Elephants — people experiencing an episode of poor mental health — subconsciously know that the office environment is not safe for them. If someone figures out their secret, these elephants fear they could lose their jobs, be demoted or humiliated. The elephants feel scared, insecure, unable to talk about their needs and generally try to remain invisible.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

As a manager or leader, you can create an emotionally supportive environment that enables everyone to do the job they were hired to do while simultaneously meeting performance, business and financial expectations. How?

  • Be clear and transparent. Tell employees about their rights in the workplace, what services are available, how to access those
    services and who is allowed to know what regarding these services.
  • Use your company policies to guide creation of a strong, solid and compassionate action plan tailored to the unique needs of
    employees experiencing an episode of poor mental health.
  • Find new ways to accomplish tasks, including reasonable accommodations. Employees with short-term or long-term mental health conditions deserve the same opportunity to work and make money as everyone else.

The execution of a thoughtfully crafted plan may serve as the early intervention an employee needs to avert self-harm and recover. Your thoughtful questions could generate a true moment of clarity for someone trying to find their way. Understanding the signs of mental health conditions commonly found in the workplace, and how to address them, can increase the odds of a positive outcome for everyone involved, regardless of the name of their disorder.

Bottom line — you can meet people where they are, show empathy and find new ways to accomplish tasks without jeopardizing your
career, office morale, or the business.


Photo credit: artursfoto/Getty Images

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