This week is Canadian Mental Health Week (May 3rd to 9th), and fittingly, this year’s slogan is “name it, don’t numb it.” In acknowledgement of mental health, particularly in light of the past year+ and the brain science behind labelling emotions, we thought this was a timely and appropriate topic to discuss.

How often do you – especially in passing or at the start of a meeting – answer the question “how are you” with “fine”, “good”, or “not bad”, even when you’re actually struggling to smile? Accordingly, how often do you ask the question without truly caring about the response – or being willing to hold space for the response, whatever it may be? This is particularly evident where mental health issues in the workplace (which can range from mild to severe) are concerned. In fact, as various research has shown, employees often feel that their professionalism or careers will be negatively impacted if they disclose mental health issues. To illustrate, a Morneau Shepell study found this to be the case among 50% of management respondents and 39% of non-management.

Whether individuals’ emotional experiences/responses are related to ongoing mental health challenges (which may impact attendance and/or performance), or simply occasional in-the-moment reactions, UCLA research by Lieberman & Associates found that describing or naming emotions helps mitigate their intensity. As Lieberman explains: “When you put feelings into words, you’re activating the prefrontal region and seeing a reduced response in the amygdala. In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light – when you put feelings into words you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses. As a result, a person may feel less angry or less sad.”

When we identify and name the emotion (and even share it with others), the amygdala becomes stronger and we’re able to respond less reactively. Rather than letting our body take over, which further fuels the mind and emotion (e.g. think clenched body and gritted teeth), which further fuels the body response (and so on), taking a step back and naming the feeling and how it’s impacting you/your body allows that response to diffuse. While it doesn’t change the circumstances before you, it can have a significant impact on how you respond. Keep in mind that naming emotion is not the same as suppressing emotion. As Gross & Levenson’s research found, suppressing emotion leads to elevated heart rates, among other negative physiological impacts.

What can employers do?

In a January post, we discussed a number of ways that employers can support their employees through mental health challenges. One of those was to normalize it, which, in large part, is what we’re talking about here. As an employer/leadership team, it’s important to make it okay and safe for employees at all levels to talk about challenges they’re having – observing appropriate confidentiality and privacy, of course. While it’s not recommended that leaders/managers get into details about significant trauma/experiences, they can and should be clear that they, like everyone, struggle with the same things that employees struggle with, particularly with the pandemic being a factor. Other steps leaders and managers can take are to:

  • Take the time to truly understand the impacts of various life circumstances (including COVID, of course) on individuals with highly varying home and personal situations (i.e. just because you may be fine, or think you’re fine, it doesn’t mean everyone else is or should be)
  • Provide openings for genuine check-ins and holding space simply for ‘how people are’
  • Model acceptable discussions by indicating – for example and assuming it is true – that you too find it hard to stay motivated on a daily basis and struggle with being upbeat; and offer up ways or a discussion on how you can support each other
  • Consider apps that help you and your teams identify their moods and emotions such as or Stop Breathe Think

While COVID has most definitely negatively impacted mental health, it has also highlighted that we all struggle from time to time, some of us significantly and ongoing – regardless of who we are or what position we hold. Few of us haven’t experienced some form of anxiety, depression, anger, loneliness, or isolation in the past year and, while this is devastating, the light that has been much more openly cast on mental health might just be the path necessary to help reduce its stigma – and fuel greater support.