Anyone navigating a life change can quickly point out the perils of being too open at work. It can be risky to reveal plans that still aren’t fully baked, and may even be dangerous to riff on what you’re hoping to achieve in your next act.
Now, a new study connects our ability to be open at work with our mental health, and there are special insights for those over 40. The study, from Canada’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and based on more than 2,200 people, finds that almost 40% of workers say they wouldn’t tell their manager if they had a mental health problem, such as stress, depression or a substance abuse problem. Yet a good number are ready to be part of a warmer, more supportive work environment: 64% say they’d be concerned about a coworker who was struggling and half say they’d like to help.
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Of those that say they wouldn’t discuss these problems, 38% says it’s because they fear doing so would affect their careers. The more positive the relationship with their immediate supervisor, the more likely people would be to disclose a problem.
"People who were 40 to 49 were even less willing to disclose,” says senior scientist Carolyn Dewa, Ph.D., who led the research. “When people are in mid-career, they are afraid it will hurt their trajectory.” It’s a bigger issue for those who are committed to their work. “The workers who typically have the highest chronic stress are those who are most invested in the company, so they identify their success with the organization. These are the people who pour heart and soul into their work.”
Obviously, it’s a problem for organizations, since stress, depression and other mental health issues zap productivity. Dewa’s research has shown that coaching managers to be more supportive at work, including backing employees up when they need to leave early for counseling sessions or even take short-tem leave, helps people feel better about the workplace.
But she says the findings are also important for people mulling a job or career change. “We put more emphasis on questions like, `Is the pay good?’ when what really matters for mental health is whether you see yourself surrounded by people who would be supportive of you if you needed them.”
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She says that while the study revealed fearfulness around these sensitive topics, it was also encouraging. “People want to help their coworkers, even if they don’t know how to do that. And they want to work in a place where they feel coworkers would help them.”
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