To improve mental health at work, we need to take off our emotional masks.

With Mel Martin

If we learn to love ourselves as we truly are, we‘re one step closer to mental health & making safe workplace.

We have privileged appearance and success and ignored mental health as a society for so long that our mental health barometer is off.

We believe that it is time for a reset of what we value and what we expect from others and ourselves — especially from young talent.

New world, old us?

In 2020, mental health made global headlines. Conversations about it flooded the internet. A surge in mental health crises brought about a dramatic rise in diagnoses and downloads of wellness apps.

We found ourselves taking several actions, personally and collectively, to take command of our mental health while making our workplaces safer and more accepting.

Companies invested in culture change and professed to wish to support workers.

Still, most of us have reservations about mental health at work. Getting support seems harder than ever.[i] Most managers are neither aware of disability laws nor trained in discussing and managing accommodations and leaves.

Only about 20% of workers are actively engaged at work.

Young people are the canary in the coal mine. The Harvard Business Review reported that Millennials and Gen-Z turnover was up by 18% and 6%, respectively, over 2019; 68% of Millennials (50% in 2019) and 81% of Gen Zers (75% in 2019) have left their positions citing mental health reasons.[ii] What can we do to reverse these trends and avoid hurting and losing their valuable talent and spirit — and with them, our future?

Now that we all feel what has been known all along.

We are not as strong as we think. Pretending to be is exhausting. Expecting others to be is unfair.

By acknowledging our imperfections and limitations and those of others, especially at work, we can promote mental health for all and by all.

If we want sustainability we need to accept and feel vulnerability.

With nearly two-thirds of workers, including high-powered, driven individuals like lawyers, struggling with mental illness, businesses need to think not just of environmental sustainability but also human sustainability — putting the H (for human) in ESG.[iii] How work is organized, both in pace and style, needs to change to adjust to the new normal for workers. Flexibility might be vital to making the work more tolerable and providing an environment where each individual feels enlivened.[iv]

To understand critical drivers and measure impact, consider tools such as our Human Sustainability Index. For the past decade, companies have been operating with a triple bottom line — financial, environmental, and social. Many corporate social responsibility initiatives develop and assess the firm’s impact on environmental and social well-being with no specific mention of mental health measures.

Most of us don’t assess our own impact, either.

Finally, reduce the distance between ourselves and others and between our perceptions and reality, and build deeper bonds through social events, one-on-ones, and more genuine conversations. Experts suggest more use of the simple question “How are you?”

We offer the even more important, “How are you, really?” We are flexing social muscles that have long since atrophied. When we ask questions that sound like the typical passing salutation, we might not be allowing our colleagues to dig deep, give a genuine answer, and build an authentic connection at work.[v] Ask yourself that same question.

If we understand the cost of perfection, we can reset expectations.

We are not perfect, but a litany of signals we get from society and our digital world suggests that we should be, which has terrible consequences for our mental health. Instead, we often wind up being our own Narcissus, falling in love not with ourselves, but with the image of ourselves.

We learn to love the image of our successful selves, not ourselves as we truly are in life.

Facebook’s whistleblower presented us one extreme by showing what the platform had done to the body image of teen girls. Olympic champion Simone Biles, like other athletes before her, did as well and privileged her mental and physical health over the prospects of yet another gold medal.

But as is the case with Naomi Osaka, some of us had a split reaction to athletes stepping up and stepping back — commending their courage yet feeling disappointed in their behavior. At its core, we seem to particularly value women, people of color, and others who may fall into lower socioeconomic status when they achieve great things or reflect our unrealistic ideals.

If we want change, we need to accept responsibility.

Institutions, managers, and individuals could make great strides in changing the culture around mental health if we only looked within ourselves and identified the source of such cold perfectionism, and understand the damage it causes.

About 17 years ago the World Health Organization defined mental health as “a state of well-being in which an individual realizes on his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”[vii]

So today and beyond, what can you do to avoid creating abnormal stress for yourself and others?


[i] Kelly Greenwood and Julia Anas, “It’s a New Era for Mental Health at Work,” Harvard Business Review, October 4, 2021,, accessed October 2021.

[ii] Kelly Greenwood and Julia Anas, “It’s a New Era for Mental Health at Work,” Harvard Business Review, October 4, 2021,, accessed October 2021.

[iii] ESG was short for Environmental, social, and governance, criteria that investors could use to evaluate the performance of companies along a set of dimensions.

[iv] Kelly Greenwood and Julia Anas, “It’s a New Era for Mental Health at Work,” Harvard Business Review, October 4, 2021,, accessed October 2021.

[v] Kelly Greenwood and Julia Anas, “It’s a New Era for Mental Health at Work,” Harvard Business Review, October 4, 2021,, accessed October 2021.

[vi] Dan Crim and Gerard Seijts, “What Engages Employees the most or, the Ten C’s of Employee Engagement,” Ivey Business Journal, March/April 2006,, accessed January 2014.

[vii] World Health Organization. Promoting mental health: concepts, emerging evidence, practice (Summary Report) Geneva: World Health Organization; 2004.

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