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How HR can help to detoxify language in workplace conversations

Around 300,000 people with long term mental ill-health issues lose their jobs every year and Nuffield Health research shows 80% of people have experienced a decline in mental health while working from home during the pandemic.

Now more than ever it is important that we encourage a dialogue about mental health in the workplace. However, studies reveal employees feel unable to talk to their employer when they’re beginning to experience distress or mental ill-health, with only 16% feeling able to disclose an issue to a manager.

So, how can leading HR teams change mental health dialogues in the workplace to help employees feel comfortable sharing how they feel?

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What’s wrong with the traditional mental health dialogue?

Traditionally the dialogue around mental health has been dominated by a ‘medical model’ that references illness, diagnosis and conditions. However, with the emphasis on ‘what is wrong with you’, people don’t see mental health as something that exists on a continuum, that can be improved upon.

Individuals may find it difficult to share their experiences when framed as an illness, but as with any aspect of health, the earlier people seek help the better.

To facilitate earlier intervention, and prevention, we need to change the way we view and talk about mental health and in the workplace. HR can facilitate this by demedicalising and detoxifying the language used.


Reducing the fear of discrimination and detoxifying language

The language framework around mental health has become toxified. Unlike physical health, mental health is either associated with mental ill health (with terms like disorder, condition, syndrome) or negative connotations relating to someone entire character or personality (psycho, bonkers, crazy).

Medicalised language is also problematic because it can lead to a focus on the diagnosis of a disorder and a problem that lies with that individual.

Medical terms regarding mental ill health are not typically used in everyday language. And as such we often don’t have a shared understanding of terms and meaningful conversations can be difficult.

In addition, using medical terminology runs the risk of defining a person in terms of a diagnosis, which can lead to unhelpful and alienating language in the workplace.

HR can guide teams in avoiding purely diagnostic terms like ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’ and encourage more general discussions around human distress.

It’s important managers are given the tools to lead by example. HR can assist by organising relevant training, as the best support structures are those that normalise notions of speaking about mental ill-health and seeking help.

Why not consider introducing emotional literacy training to your workplace, which can improve managers’ abilities to support their employees, equipping them with self-awareness, empathy, and relationship-building to make them better listeners?

At Nuffield Health, over 12,000 employees have completed this emotional literacy training, with 94% saying they’d feel confident supporting a colleague showing signs of emotional distress.


Remember, the mental health framework you use, on top of language, can act to dissuade employees from talking about emotional wellbeing.

Take for example the well-referenced statistic that ‘one in four people will experience a problem with their mental health each year’. This statistic, while illustrating how common mental distress can be, can be ‘othering’.

HR should encourage teams to reframe language to make it about everybody- the ‘four in four’. Creating internal messaging which adopts a concept of mental health across a continuum, supports every step of someone’s potential journey; from enhancement (“I am mentally fit but want to be fitter”; to prevention (“I am experiencing stress and want to prevent it getting worse”); and treatment (“I am experiencing mental ill- health”).

Make it about fitness and health - not illness - instead. Using phrases like ‘emotional health’, ‘feeling mentally well’ ‘mental fitness’ or ‘distress’ which are much more tangible, understandable and user friendly, can help people open up without fear of judgement or fear of being labelled as ‘ill’.


Brendan Street is professional head of emotional wellbeing at Nuffield Health