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Breaking workplace stigma through personal storytelling


“People die in silence every day, and that attention is needed, and that attention can save lives.” These powerful words from Michelle Ortega, a senior leader and mental health advocate, highlight the profound impact of storytelling in the workplace.

Her insights, shared in a recent podcast, highlight how storytelling can profoundly impact mental health awareness and action, from normalising conversations about mental health to reducing stigma and fostering a supportive environment.

Michelle’s journey into advocating for mental health and storytelling stems from a deeply personal place. Growing up with significant challenges, including trauma and mental health struggles, Michelle found solace and strength in sharing her own experiences. Reflecting on her path, Michelle says, “I’ve never felt the need to be an expert on mental health. Instead, I draw from my own journey—full of highs, lows, and unexpected turns—to encourage others to speak up.”

Her pivotal moment came during a Mental Health Awareness Week event at Fonterra, where she courageously shared her story for the first time. This experience ignited her passion to break down stigma and promote understanding through storytelling.

Michelle’s journey into advocating for mental health and storytelling comes from lived experienced, which she shares to reduce stigma and open conversations. One of her key tips for workplaces is to foster psychological safety.

During the podcast interview, Michelle shares three key lessons:

1. Psychological safety is key
Michelle emphasises the importance of creating a psychologically safe environment where employees feel comfortable being vulnerable and sharing their experiences without fear of judgement or negative consequences. “It’s about opening up that space and making it safe for people to share,” Michelle explains. “And I think that’s probably one of the main things that’s going to allow us to be truly authentic at work, is psychological safety.”

Encouraging open conversations about mental health is essential. Providing training and resources for peer support networks and implementing policies that support mental health awareness can make a significant difference. Leaders play a crucial role in this process by modelling vulnerability and openness, thereby fostering a culture where employees feel safe and accepted for who they are.

2. Leaders are key in mental health advocacy
Michelle also underscores the pivotal role leaders play in normalising mental health discussions. By sharing their own experiences and showing vulnerability, leaders can set a powerful example for their teams.” According to a lot of research, 80% of employees surveyed said that managers who talked about their mental health struggles helped them be more open about their own experiences,” she notes. This openness from leaders encourages employees to share their own experiences, leading to a more supportive and understanding workplace culture.

3. Make sure you have support networks
Support networks are vital for those sharing their mental health stories. Michelle stresses the need for individuals to have strong support systems in place, both for their own wellbeing and to maintain boundaries when supporting others. “For those who are passionate about helping others, it’s crucial they understand their boundaries and know they are supported,” Michelle says. This ensures that those who want to help are also taken care of and have access to necessary resources.

4. End stories with hope
Ending personal stories with a message of hope is another important element Michelle emphasises. Stories should not only highlight struggles but also provide hope and solutions. “Most importantly for me, when I’m sharing stories like this, is that I always end with hope,” Michelle shares. “Because other people reading it, you want them to feel hopeful for their future too.” Providing resources and support options can further empower employees to seek help and make positive changes in their lives.

Applying storytelling in the workplace, particularly around mental health, can create a more supportive and open environment. By sharing personal experiences, fostering psychological safety, having leaders advocate for mental health, building strong support networks, and ending stories with hope, people leaders and wellbeing champions can have an enormous impact their organisations. These efforts contribute to a culture where employees feel valued, understood, and supported to manage their mental health effectively.

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