Mental Health Language: Words That Can Help and Harm the Workplace

January 30, 2019

A male employee feels calm at work
Stephanie Dwilson

Mental health language may seem like an odd concept, but it's actually hugely important when you're an HR professional. If you're promoting health and safety in the workplace, then you need to create a feeling of safety and security within the walls of the HR office. One way you can achieve this is by focusing on the language you use when talking to employees. As culture shifts, language does as well. Using the wrong term can have a big impact on how concepts are perceived, and it's important to think critically about your vocabulary. Here's a look at words that HR professionals can use to promote an inclusive, holistic and wellness-focused environment.

Focus on the Person and Not the Disability

When you are speaking to or about employees who have disabilities, make sure to always focus on the person and not the disability. For example, don't refer to people as "disabled," refer to them as a "person with a disability." Avoid negative language when talking about a disability. For example, don't say that an employee is "confined" to a wheelchair or "suffering" from a disability. Instead, use positive language to promote inclusion and support, such as saying a person "uses a wheelchair" or is "living with" a certain type of disability. In this way, you are elevating the person and focusing on the employee as an individual first, with their disability coming second.

Avoid Mental Health Labels

Business managers and HR always want to help their employees' mental health. But sometimes just the focus on the word "mental health" can be a detriment. Employees may feel stigmatized or pigeon-holed if you suggest taking a "mental health" day, for example. Instead, use words with a more positive connotation, such as suggesting that employees practice mindfulness meditation to relax. Focus on what they can do to enact positive change, rather than simply using a label for what they might be facing. In the same way, don't use mental health words to describe people, such as saying that someone is acting "bipolar" or they're "OCD." You don't want to use words that are actual mental health diagnoses in a derogatory manner, or you could alienate your employees.

Avoid Cliches or Gendered Language in Job Postings

Avoid words in job postings that can alienate potential candidates. For example, gendered words like "he" or "him" in a job posting can cause women to feel self-conscious about applying. Instead, use pronouns like "they" or "them." Job titles also shouldn't denote gender, so say "camera operator" rather than "cameraman," "server" instead of "waitress," and "police officer" instead of "policewoman," for example.

You'll also want to avoid cliches, hero-worshipping or jargon in job postings that might accidentally exclude diverse job candidates. For example, you might not realize that words like "gangster" or "ninjas" could dissuade women from applying, or that the word "unicorn" is sometimes used in a derogatory way to describe bisexual individuals.

You might even be surprised to learn that "expertise" words like world-class or superior might turn off women, who tend to enjoy being collaborative rather than competitive. If you must use these words, balance them with teamwork-oriented words. To find out if a job posting accidentally has exclusive language, paste the copy into Joblint, an open-source project, or use a product like Textio.

Remember, the focus on mental health language is to promote positivity and empowerment, rather than accidentally reducing someone to just their traits. Some word choices may seem silly to you, but they can actually have a powerful impact on promoting health and safety in the workplace. Give some of these examples a try and see if you notice a change in how your employees respond. It only takes a little extra time and thought to make sure that the language you're using promotes feelings of security and safety.

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