Are your anti-negativity policies limiting your team?

Unlock the keys to effective mental health strategies in the workplace with insights from Melissa Doman, M.A., and Mark Simmonds. Learn why addressing both positive and negative aspects of mental health is crucial and how to create a supportive environment for your employees.

We aren’t encouraged to feel happy and positive all the time. If workplace mental health strategies don’t make space for mental health imbalances, emotions, and challenges, then your mental wellbeing strategies are unlikely to be effective, no matter how positive the intention.

In one of our previous webinars, Melissa Doman, M.A., and Mark Simmonds discussed where positive mental health policies can go wrong and how to build a mental health strategy with real impact.

Together, they explain why ensuring mental health policies encompasses all aspects of mental health—both the negative and the positive.

We’ll cover:

Reframing bringing your ‘best self’ to the workplace

Take a moment to ask yourself how you would define mental wellbeing in the workplace. When Mark asked himself that question, his initial answer was that it’s something that enables you to bring your ‘best self’ to the workplace.

‘Best self’ is a familiar and well-worn concept, yet, as Mark realized, it can sometimes harm rather than help when it comes to workplace mental health.

“I thought, well, maybe that’s not quite right,” he says. “Maybe it’s about bringing yourself to the workplace, and the environment of the workplace enables you to perform at your very best.”

“A million times yes,” says Melissa. “‘Best self’ is a made-up concept by humans that doesn’t exist.

“When you think about the concept of your best self, this is a psychological and sociological phenomenon that has been created in recent years by humans. You want to be your best self. I understand the positive intention behind it. You want people to do things that make them feel good and that make them feel like they’re functioning at their best. But that’s not how humans always work. And I think that can unintentionally layer on toxic positivity.”

“It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t strive to do things that make you feel healthy, that make you feel good, that elevate others around you, and that help you function at your peak. Those are wonderful days when we can have them. But to have this unintentional, toxic, positivity-laden pressure to come as your best self means, ‘Oh, we don’t want to see the rough edges and the negative thoughts and feelings that can come with that because that’s too difficult to deal with,’” says Melissa.

Treating mental health professionally

If we make space in the workplace for discussions about employee mental health, how can we best manage those discussions to ensure they are effective and impactful for both the individual and the business?

“We’re not trying to say, ‘Oh, we should talk about every emotion and every feeling to everybody all the time at work’,” stresses Melissa. “That’s not what we’re going for. We’re advocating that it’s healthy to talk about things as and when they come up within the context of the workplace.”

“I tend to come at it from a very outcome-focused perspective. By supporting someone or bringing something up in the workplace, what do you hope to get from this conversation? What are the outcomes you’re looking for? How are you hoping someone will help you, or how are you hoping to help someone else?

“If we’re going to talk about this at work, let’s make sure something comes from it, so the conversations don’t just fizzle out into the infinite abyss.”

Make employees feel seen, heard and understood

Struggling with mental health at work can feel lonely if there’s no space to talk about your mental health experiences and have them heard and understood.

“Almost every single patient who came to see me [as a licensed therapist] felt they couldn’t talk about, let alone a mental health condition, general mental health in the workplace,” says Melissa.

Melissa expands on this topic in her book, “Yes, You Can Talk About Mental Health at Work.” “Many studies have shown that workers want to talk about their mental health at work and the negative consequences of not being able to,” she says.

“In particular, Mind Share Partners and Qualtrics conducted a study published by the Harvard Business Review in 2019 that found younger generations are overwhelmingly frustrated that mental health is still seen as taboo and are reluctant to stay in organizations that don’t talk about and prioritize mental health.”

“The discussion around mental health at work is shifting with each generation. While 86% of all respondents thought that a company’s culture should support mental health, this percentage was even higher among the younger generations. The shift indicates that younger employees are eager for their employers and leaders to normalize discussions about something they were raised to see as healthy and reasonable to discuss.”

“Most notably, the study showed that younger generations will seek to work elsewhere if they don’t feel safe discussing mental health at work and can’t get that reasonable need met at their current company.”

“If the need to talk is there and employees can’t leave a company, then they will stay and suffer in silence,” she explains. “This could lead to an employee feeling less engaged, experiencing triggering episodes if they have a diagnosed mental health condition, increasing stress levels, feeling quiet or even overt resentment, harboring distrust, and withdrawing from work relationships. They may go on sick leave or short-term disability for mental health issues.”

Conversely, when companies normalize mental health conversations and employees feel seen and heard, it creates a more supportive and productive workforce.

‘Everything is fine’: Not implementing unofficial anti-negativity

When organizations focus solely on positive mental health—for example, how to maintain a positive attitude, overcome challenges, and bring your ‘best self’ to work—an unintended consequence is that it can result in the minimization, denial, and invalidation of how someone truly feels. It’s something Melissa refers to as ‘toxic positivity.’

“The positivity is a well-intended, encouraged method of coping, but how it lands is anything but that,” she says in her book.

“Feeling happy 100% of the time isn’t what it really means to be human. We aren’t meant to feel happy or positive all the time. Not even animals feel happy all the time. We have the ability to feel a whole host of emotions, some of which are negative, for a reason.

“Imagine if someone has clinical depression, is struggling with addiction, is going through a rough patch in their life, or is just having a crap day and needs to get mad and cry. Now, add pressure on top of that, and they need to be positive and push through it. What does that do to a person? Certainly nothing good. It leads people to deal with any negative emotions quietly on their own because they’re not part of the ‘positivity narrative.’”

“There has been a smorgasbord of research around this, the darker side of promoting toxic positivity. If this type of program is offered by a workplace, it’s basically setting the tone for employees that there is an expectation that staff ‘keep it together.’ I’ve lost track of the number of speakers, programs, and initiatives I’ve seen that are purely dedicated to the maintenance of consistently ‘positive’ mental health and, most destructively, an emphasis on maintaining positive mental health for productivity.

“Unfortunately, these programs do what they’re designed to do: influence workplace discussions, and in this case, it’s not positive, despite the title of the program.

“Monica Torres, a reporter for Huffington Post, very aptly wrote that even though the positivity is well-intended, it’s counterproductive and harmful. Torres interviewed organizational psychology professionals who echoed the sentiment that toxic positivity can create a work culture where employees can’t share how they truly feel, legitimate negative emotions are dismissed, and trust between colleagues is eroded. You can see why I’m not a fan—promoting feelings of worry or guilt around ‘not being positive enough’ isn’t the aim.

“The more realistic approach, and how we should be integrating discussions of mental health and mental illness into the fabric of workplace culture, is to acknowledge the shades of grey, that mental health conditions arise, and it’s okay not to be okay at work. And it’s okay to talk about not being okay at work.”

Do you want to hear more from Mark and Mel?

Are your workplace mental health strategies truly effective? It’s time to move beyond superficial positivity and embrace a comprehensive approach to mental health in the workplace. Your employees deserve a workplace where they feel seen, heard and understood. Let’s build that together.

To catch the entire webinar replay, head over to our YouTube page. And if you’re interested in diving deeper, grab copies of Melissa’s and Mark’s books from our publishing bookstore. Plus, consider booking them for individual guest speaker events to bring their invaluable expertise directly to your organization. Reach out to us today for further details.

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