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What’s really on your mind?

"How are you?"

We get asked this by colleagues almost every day. Invariably for many of us, including me, the automatic response is often, “I’m fine”, even when it may not really be the case. And think about how many emails we begin with a formulaic, “I hope you’re well”, without expecting a response to that question.

This is especially true at work. Those few minutes at the start of a phone or video call–or bumping into someone in the corridor. How often have you simply said you were fine, even though you really weren’t?

While much of the time our answers may really reflect how we are - that we really are fine–what about the times when we aren’t? What if we said how we really felt? Said what’s really on our minds? And when we ask someone how they are, what if we took a moment to ask more open-ended questions about how they are really doing?

The COVID-19 pandemic shone a spotlight on workplace mental health, pushing it up the agenda like never before. Yet research shows that many people still choose not to disclose their mental struggles with managers and colleagues. For example, Deloitte’s 2022 Gen Z and Millennials survey found that over a third of Gen Zs and Millennials are not comfortable speaking openly with their direct manager about feeling stressed or anxious, and half of those needing to take time off for mental health issues chose to give other reasons for their absence. This speaks to the enduring stigma–either self or societal, or both-that surrounds mental ill health and that holds many back from being open.

For Deloitte, mental health isn’t something we just discuss once a year on World Mental Health Day. Addressing the stigma around talking about mental ill health at work has been at the core of our diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) efforts for some time. To this end, our organization has a mental health baseline that set clear expectations in every country in which Deloitte operates. This set of requirements covers areas such as leadership education, providing learning and support, identifying causes of mental ill health and actions to address them. Importantly, it also covers stigma–encouraging people to talk about mental health and to share lived experience; along with enabling our people to know what to say if someone says they aren’t fine. 

Our focus on mental health at work on a global basis does not end at our walls–we are proud to be a founding partner, alongside other global businesses, of the Global Business Collaboration for Better Workplace Mental Health (GBC) which was established in January 2021. Through awareness raising and sharing good practice–what works and what hasn’t–we are collaborating to advocate for, and accelerate, positive change toward mental health in the workplace on a global basis.

So at an organizational level there is much happening. But I firmly believe that we can all contribute to bringing about meaningful change when it comes to mental health at work through our day-to-day actions and words–through challenging ourselves to move away from default questions and responses.

This is why this World Mental Health Day we’ve decided to call out the frequent disconnect between how we say we are and how we truly feel. Through an engaging series of illustrated workplace scenarios, we want to encourage people to reflect on the default responses we often give when asked how we’re doing and encourage conversations about mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. It’s a call for us all to contribute to breaking down the all-too-common, self-reinforcing patterns that hinder open dialogue when it comes to mental health at work.

At the heart of this is empathetic, human leadership. Some of the scenarios have leaders as key characters and for good reason: people are more likely to open up when their leaders model openness and when they themselves feel they can safely do so without being judged or penalized.

By being more deliberate about how we check in with one another and more open in our responses, we can all help to foster a workplace environment where it is easier to be open about mental health–one where stigma has no place.