Shreya Shankar

Supporting your coworkers who might be experiencing mental health issues

September 16, 2019 in #mental health

Working a full-time job in the tech industry hasn’t been easy — especially for me, someone diagnosed with a mental illness. I experience symptoms of bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, schizoaffective disorder, and probably many other disorders that my psychiatrists haven’t gotten time to explore with me. Yes, it is possible to be high-functioning and still struggle with mental health issues. 72% of entrepreneurs and more than 1 in 5 people in the tech industry have self-reported mental health issues.

Why is it so hard to do my job like a normal employee? Anyone who has experienced depression might know that it can be really difficult to get out of bed. Showing up to work is a struggle. By the time I’ve shown up to work, I’m usually berating myself for not having exercised in the morning. I’ve probably skipped breakfast. Poor choices cascade, and of course, my productivity is hindered.

I’m lucky to have coworkers who understand my situation and support me in maximizing my productivity and well-being. But I’ve had to share specific details of my situation, and I understand that most people don’t want to speak up if they have a mental health issue. We fear being treated differently, especially in a professional setting where we’re constantly being evaluated on the outputs of our brains.

So what can you do to help or make life easier for your coworkers who might be going through a hard time or have mental health issues? Here are some ways you can support them:

  1. Resist making any judgements about what’s going on. Anxiety sucks. Someone with anxiety probably already spends hours dwelling on how others feel about them. If your coworker isn’t acting normally and you feel comfortable asking them about it, avoid using judgemental phrases and just state the facts — for example, “You’ve been showing up to work later than usual. Are you feeling okay?” If they open up to you, they’re probably not asking for advice. The best way to help is to kindly listen and ask what you can do to help.
  2. Offer to help your coworker practice healthy work habits. Therapists always advise to maintain a schedule, so ask your coworker if you can check in with them upon arrival to and departure from work. My boss Slacks me every morning I don’t show up before 9:30 AM (of course, I wanted him to do this). My former internship host did the same. Just being in the office on time isn’t enough, though. Schedule lunches with your coworkers to ensure they get at least one meal. Go for a walk with them during your 1:1s so they can get fresh air and light exercise. Don’t spy on everything they do, but if you notice that they’re getting frustrated or losing productivity, kindly suggest they take a break or maybe eat a snack.
  3. Know where they can seek support. You are not a therapist, but your coworker may want or need to talk to someone with professional mental health experience. The only person who can make a diagnosis is a mental health professional. Do some research on your company’s mental health policies. Check out your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and figure out how your coworker could contact them. Look through your benefits to see if there are any relaxing or therapeutic activities such as massages. To facilitate trust, ask for consent from your coworker before sharing their situation with anyone else.
  4. Accept that they may not be able to work a full 8 hours at a stretch. I have appointments with my psychiatrists 2-3 times a week in the middle of the day. When trying new medications, side effects like drowsiness or nausea might dampen productivity. Encourage your coworker to take rest when they don’t feel healthy or energetic so that they are motivated to work when they do feel healthy and energetic.
  5. Take care of yourself. Many times, people are afraid to share their experiences and needs because they don’t want to burden you with their problems. It’s awesome that you want to help others, but remember that you need to take care of yourself. You shouldn’t have to spend many hours a day discussing problems. You can refer your coworker to other sources of help. Know your limits, and if you’re feeling confident, assure your coworker that you are taking care of yourself and they don’t need to worry about you too.

Supporting your coworkers isn’t always easy, but when everyone is as productive and positive as they can be given the situation, the entire team benefits. One person alone can’t change the entire stigma of mental health — there are things we all can do to make life a little better for people who are struggling.

Shreya Shankar is a machine learning engineer and masters student in computer science at Stanford University. Follow her on Twitter.