A person sitting on a couch.

Creating Space for Mental Health Conversations in the Workplace

May is Mental Health Awareness month, and it provides an opportunity to engage in thought and conversation about something we all care about and yet are somewhat reluctant to discuss. Throughout my life, I have turned to art and music to help me sort through conflicting feelings, and I would like to share a few observations about mental health from studying the life of Vincent Van Gogh throughout his short 37 years.

Vincent had a good support system. His brother Theo was his “safe place” and his biggest supporter, both emotionally and financially. Vincent also had medical professionals to care for him, and friends who cared about him. But equally importantly: Vincent had his work. His work fed his soul and contributed positively to his mental health.We rarely talk about the positive impact work can have when it comes to mental health, instead accounting for situations—numerous, to be sure—where toxic workplaces take a toll. Yet the purpose, connection, and refuge work can provide is a key component of a fulfilling life for any human being.

Last September, I took a week-long watercolor workshop in Arles, France, following in Vincent’s footsteps. In addition to painting at sites where he painted, we also visited Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, an asylum where he admitted himself after the infamous argument and ear incident with Paul Gauguin. As our small group of artists followed the markers along the Van Gogh Walk, from the center of town to the asylum, we viewed reproductions of his paintings, some of them located where he painted them 130 years ago.

One marker, with Starry Night as the painting, includes this passage from a letter to his brother Theo: “All is going well for me […] and as regards work, it occupies and distracts me — which I need very much.”

A person painting outside.
The author, following Van Gogh's footsteps and advice.

As someone who has gone through many changes, both professionally and personally, I have greatly benefited, like Vincent, from family, friends, medical professionals, and especially my work to keep me sane when my life seemed to be falling apart. The friendships I made at the office steadied me. The routine of work provided predictable comfort when my life could not. Medical professionals were trained sounding boards and advisors.

I found I needed all of it, including my spiritual beliefs, to maintain my mental health when I was widowed at the age of 37 with two young sons, ages 16 months and 5 years. Eleven years later, when I was going through a difficult divorce, my work and vast support system again provided the foundation I needed. Time and time again, through life’s trials and tribulations, my work and relationships came together to provide mental balance.

This May, it seems fitting to consider how we might engage in conversation about mental health, and support our coworkers, clients, and friends by providing a safe place to voice concerns and share feelings. Some ideas to consider:

  • Understand that the workplace can be a comfort in times of stress. Routine schedules, the discipline of work, the known vs. unknown: all can provide an environment that feels more in control when otherwise life may be spinning out of control.
  • Conversely, understand that the workplace can add to personal stress. Look for signs that it is taking a toll instead of adding energy, and consider providing a relief outlet.
  • Stay flexible: Gensler’s 2019 Workplace Survey notes that people report having a “great workplace experience” if they have a choice of places to work, both in and out of the office. When going through a difficult time, it can help to be surrounded by coworkers and friends. But decompressing alone in a quiet area can be just as important. We should empower our people to have these choices.
  • Perhaps say, “If you ever need an ear…” Invite your colleagues to share and assure them that you can be a sounding board and trusted listener. Strive to create spaces — both physical and emotional — in your workplace that foster a culture of trust and connection.
  • Offer to share difficult news with others on someone’s behalf so it doesn’t become a repetitive burden.
  • Share a time when professional therapy worked for you. Your story may open the door for others to feel okay about seeking psychological care.
  • Encourage self-care: sleep, diet, exercise, and other healthy habits. Perhaps suggest a walk together in the middle of the work day. A walk can produce endorphins, and could also open opportunities for personal sharing that wouldn’t otherwise occur inside the office.
  • Offer a smile, and take a few seconds to connect. Sometimes, just a smile can make a huge difference in someone’s day and improve their mental health.

This month — and moving forward — let’s open the door to acknowledging and discussing mental health. Perhaps we can be like Theo Van Gogh, and offer a safe place for sharing feelings and life challenges, even in the workplace.