What Does It Mean to Be an Ally for Women's Mental Health in the Workplace?

Associates discuss what it means to be an ally for mental health

Get insights from the Women@Work 2021 webinar on how organizations can help women balance their mental health, both at home and at work.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, more people have been vocal about experiencing anxiety and depression than ever before. In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, in December 2020, 42% of U.S. adults reported experiencing these symptoms, a significant increase from just 11% in previous years.

As a result, organizations around the world are asking themselves, "What does it mean to be an ally for mental health in the workplace?"

But there's one side of the story that doesn't get as much attention as it should. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, women in particular are affected most by symptoms of anxiety and depression. In fact, the Journal of Women's Health reported that women are experiencing mental health problems at an "alarmingly high rate."

ADP recently sponsored the Women@Work 2021 virtual summit, where experts shared their experiences and offered insights on how organizations can help women balance their mental health, both at home and at work. Here are a few ideas, benefits and practices that were discussed during the webinar to help your organization develop an internal culture that supports women.

Educating yourself and your organization

The webinar presenters were quick to note that the topic of mental health can carry a stigma for both employers and employees. Individuals experiencing mental health challenges may be afraid of discrimination and negative associations, and members of leadership may be afraid to address the topic because they feel unqualified or unsure of what they can do to help.

The most important thing leaders can do to demonstrate allyship is to actively reduce the stigma associated with mental health struggles.

Start by being conscious of the language that's used within your organization to talk about mental health. Word choice is powerful and can either perpetuate or reduce stigma. Ensure that the adjectives and labels being used are positive, productive and inclusive. Next, make sure information about mental health is readily available to your associates, and aim to schedule professional development and programming with third-party experts who can help dispel misconceptions.

Searching for signs of burnout

The experts also noted that people tend to think of mental health challenges as emotional responses to difficult conditions. While there's more to it than that, it is true that emotional signs like feeling sad or withdrawn, sudden changes in mood, or feelings of excessive worry, guilt or anger can be signs of burnout or other mental health issues. However, mental health issues can also affect people on a physical level, which may impact their performance in the workplace.

According to research from the Mayo Clinic, physical symptoms of mental health issues include compromised immune system function, cardiovascular or digestive issues, tiredness, low energy and sleeping problems. It's not hard to imagine how these symptoms could make it hard for a person to focus and perform consistently at work.

"Oftentimes when we talk about mental health, we just think in terms of not feeling great — I'm feeling frustrated, or tired from my work," explains Julia Arndt, Founder of Peak Performance Method. "But these are all symptoms that something is going on in your body that we should be paying a little bit closer attention to." As Arndt noted, burnout can have "a lot of physical effects as well as emotional effects."

Learning how to start the conversation

So, what does it mean to be an ally for associates experiencing mental health challenges?

While serious conversations should be left to trained professionals, every member of the leadership team has the capacity to ask questions about how a team member is doing and listen with empathy. Sometimes just listening can have a powerful impact on a team member who's struggling with their mental health.

Kristen Durney, Co-Founder of Mental Wellness Unleashed, noted that listening is an important part of being patient when the people you're working with may not be ready to take action right away.

"If you approach an individual who is not quite ready to talk about something, simply show them you are supportive, compassionate, empathetic and caring," says Durney. "By asking how you can help, rather than immediately offering solutions, you can help them feel supported and ensure they receive the type of assistance that will be the most beneficial to them."

Spreading awareness about burnout and providing resources to support it

One of the most important aspects of being an ally for women's mental health is making everyone aware of the programs and resources available to help and ensuring that everyone has equal access to them. It may be helpful to start by raising awareness of what burnout is and how it can manifest.

"We often don't realize that we are burning out until it's almost too late, and that was my experience," explains Arndt. "I had heard about anxiety and depression, of course, but I never saw it as something that could happen to me. It was only after I'd burned out that I discovered the amazing resources that were available."

It's especially important to spread awareness about burnout and resources for managing it among women and people of underrepresented minorities, as these communities are often underserved.

Yasmine Flasterstein, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Peer Support Space, Inc., pointed out that "there is often a history of distrust, as accessible, affordable, culture-affirming help is not available for women and women of color the way it is for affluent white men. Offering peer counseling and support services from people of the same race or ethnic background puts the healing directly into the hands of the community."

Leading by example

As a leader, opening up and talking about your experiences in an appropriate setting can be an excellent way to normalize discussions about mental health in the workplace. Sharing your stories can help change the narrative and create a more open, welcoming and safe space for your employees to seek assistance and support. It can also facilitate the development of greater empathy for one another, resulting in a more inclusive culture.

Leading by example also shows your team what it means to take care of yourself first so that you can take care of others — something the webinar presenters noted as particularly important for women in the workplace who may tend to prioritize the needs of others over their own. Modeling self-care by demonstrating healthy habits around boundaries and taking time off shows employees that mental health is valued and may empower them to do the same.

What does it mean to be an ally?

Becoming a mental health ally is not easy. True allyship in the workplace is a long-haul effort that requires a commitment to continued education, concerted awareness efforts and ongoing communication. When organizations help their leaders position themselves as allies for mental wellness, it benefits everyone.

Learn more

Interested in learning what else was discussed during the Women@Work Summit? You can watch the entire program on demand.

Download and share these helpful resources for leaders and employees: