Q&A iStock-Mind Share Partners Workplace Mental Health Guidelines

vector graphic of woman lounging with her dog

The way you choose to visualize your employees at work matters—and can have a real impact on the way they see themselves and others, as well as how supported they feel at work.

In other words, choose wisely. Given that businesses everywhere are considering return-to-office plans and either issuing messaging and communications describing protocol—or in the process of drafting such protocol now—there’s never been a better time to “get it right.” Which is to say, putting out communications that demonstrate that you care about your employees, their total well-being and their mental health, both in words as well as pictures, illustrations and videos, is not just good for them, it’s good for you, too.

November 3 is National Stress Awareness Day, and Mind Share Partners, a national nonprofit which is actively changing the culture of workplace mental health, in collaboration with leading visual content provider iStock, today unveiled their joint guidelines for authentically, inclusively and respectfully visualizing mental health in the workplace. We sat down with Bernie Wong, Senior Manager of Insights at Mind Share Partners, and Rebecca Rom-Frank, Creative Insights Researcher at iStock, to dig into these guidelines and share suggestions as to how SMBs, as well as businesses and media, can approach their visual choices in the coming weeks and year.


First off, Bernie, talk to us about the impact the last 20 months or so have had on employees across the nation, and the opportunity that exists for both businesses and media.

With everything that has happened, mental health is salient for almost every employee across functions, industries and levels. In Mind Share Partners’ 2021 Mental Health at Work Report in partnership with Qualtrics and ServiceNow, over three-quarters of American workers experiencing mental health symptoms in the past year, and these symptoms are happening for longer durations of time. With greater experience and understanding comes greater expectations around accurate and inclusive portrayals of mental health. For many, mental health is no longer a simple campaign for self-care or the ever-popular mental health day. It’s about people’s livelihoods and the ways in which their employers, leaders, managers and the broader culture around work itself supports them—or not.

Rebecca, you have insights given the research you do at iStock. Tell us about the stereotypes and cliches that marketers and employers rely upon when visualizing workplace situations and dynamics or conveying stress or pressure.

Historically, popular visuals have represented mental health as a problem, which is how we ended up with stereotypes like the stressed-out individual grasping their head in their hands out of sheer frustration, the person sitting with a box of tissues in their lap to represent depression, or a symbolic brain, perhaps overlaid with a puzzle pattern to imply that it is “broken.” Ultimately, our design choices have very real effects on how people understand mental health, seek support or support others, so these types of cliches can be harmful. In recent years, we’ve seen an increase in visual choices representing a range of solutions, such as group therapy, mindfulness meditation, or taking breaks at work. Not that there aren’t cliches in this realm, either—we still see a lot of yoga!

Bernie, what’s the intent of these guidelines then? When you sat down with iStock to dream these into being, what problem were you hoping to solve?

Throughout my career working in mental health nonprofits, I’ve routinely seen organizations and media alike lean into inaccurate tropes and dramatizations of mental health, whether for clicks and views or were simply well-intentioned but uninformed. But just as Rebecca suggested, the ways in which we visualize and talk about mental health—our truly deep and personal experience of what it means to be human—changes how we come to understand our own wellbeing, how we view others who are struggling, and if, when, and what kind of support we seek. For example, research shows that while framing depression as a “brain disease” makes people more open to exploring medication as a treatment option, others are also more likely to view that managing depression as dangerous or untreatable. Our guidelines go beyond simply choosing pictures for articles or campaigns—it’s an advocacy project to equip companies and media with the knowledge to play a meaningful role in shaping public awareness and perceptions around mental health overall.

Alright, let’s dig into the guidelines themselves. I believe there are six, and I’m hoping you can briefly walk us through each one and share some of your research to help solidify both the significance and business need for each of our readers. Rebecca, would you like to start?

Absolutely. The first point is something we’re particularly passionate about at iStock, and that’s around the concept of authenticity in visual communications. The proliferation of photo-sharing and social media has influenced peoples’ expectations that visuals feel more candid and personal, and our Visual GPS research confirms that 70% want to see real lifestyles reflected in all types of visual communications. For us, “authenticity” generally refers to a photo or video that looks like a slice of life, shot documentary-style. Usually, this means natural lighting, real people, genuine emotions and interactions, and shots that feel candid, not staged. With illustration, there is of course more room for creativity. But the idea is that when you are looking for authenticity, you tend to choose visuals that feel truer to life, which can lead to a healthy expansion of the types of people and scenarios we see represented, too.

With all of that in mind, challenges with mental health are a near-universal experience, so visuals should reflect real scenarios—both the positive and challenging—including everyday life at work. Our Visual GPS research found that mental health and happiness are the single biggest priority shift for Americans as a result of the pandemic, even though only 1 in 4 said that they have actually learned how to best manage their stress. Still, fully 95% of Americans said they take care of their emotional health just as much as their physical health, so we know that showing the real ways that people experience and address mental health issues will resonate with most audiences.

Bernie, talk to us about inclusivity and why it’s key toward making DE&I priorities in mental health conversations.

Mental health and DEI are intrinsically tied. You can’t talk about mental health without acknowledging the pervasive social and structural inequities that historically underrepresented and disenfranchised groups face—all significantly impact mental health, stigma, employment, and people’s relationships to work. At its core, mental health is an advocacy issue for every group, subgroup, and individual involved.

Second, mental health media has continued to lag in diverse representation; specifically, going beyond standard tropes about specific groups and their mental health. Speaking not only as a leader in the field but even personally from my own experience as an LGBTQ+ Asian American managing chronic depression, my experience with mental health is not the same as the editorial depictions of “wellness” that we’ve historically been inundated with.

In choosing visuals, we are effectively choosing how to represent humanity. We can decide to reinforce the pervasive socialization of men as unemotional, stoic individuals, or only show people of color as they pertain to conversations about DEI and trauma. Or we can choose to show people from all backgrounds engaging in a healthier future which we envision for ourselves as a collective. 

Rebecca, let’s discuss why visualizing solutions is just as vital.

As Bernie mentioned, our visual landscape is only a representation of the real world—which means that we can choose whether we want to replicate images that stigmatize mental health or visualize the positive solutions that may help people cope. It’s time businesses recognize this and reflect back to consumers and employees that they’re aware of this fact via the visual choices they’re making.

So, there’s an opportunity here for SMBs that want to visualize a healthy return-to-office. According to research from iStock, only 16% of Americans said they’re looking forward to returning to work and 60% want more support in balancing responsibilities at work and home. Employers should consider prioritizing visuals that promote sustainable ways of working and proactive strategies, which means going beyond yoga and meditation visuals. While both are valid tools and supported by research, we need to expand our visual literacy by choosing visuals that depict employees taking breaks or making time for themselves in the office and also outside of it. Try showing workers able to attend to familial obligations while doing their jobs, or show a senior leader sharing a thoughtful message of support to employees in an all-hands meeting.

Bernie, why is it important to reflect reality, and convey modern concerns including work-life balance and remote work?

As Rebecca said, people want authenticity. They want real people and real experiences. Given the growing dialogue around the harmful effects of a heavily curated, glamorized reality that not only social media but all media fall prey to, this sentiment is something we must all take to heart. As more workers are personally experiencing mental health challenges while growing their own understanding of mental health, they’re wanting to see their experiences reflected in the media they consume. Portraying reality and the nuance of mental health is not only validating but also simply true, factual reporting as we think about honesty and transparency in the media.

When it comes to depicting modern concerns around mental health, there are two elements to this conversation. The first is simply meeting people where they’re at—what’s happening in the world and how we visualize this for viewers to empathize with the content at hand. The second is reflecting challenges that have always been here but are now increasingly visible as our modern understanding of mental health has grown. Challenges with our mental health, the impact of toxic, unsupportive workplaces, inequities in access to support—these have always been around. Just as we want to reflect current circumstances like the ongoing pandemic, racial injustices, and return to office plans, we also want to reflect our latest understanding of mental health as well, beyond the latest mental health app and thinking deeply about our society’s culture of work itself.

Rebecca, what about the need for depicting connection and community?

Employees are feeling the strain of social distancing, remote work and COVID-19 exposure anxiety for front-line workers. In Mind Share Partners’ 2021 Report, communication practices and employees’ sense of connection to or support from their colleagues or manager were among the top workplace factors that worsened amidst the transition to remote work. According to iStock research, 48% of Americans feel that communicating online has made some of their relationships worse. At the same time, Americans say that living through the pandemic made them appreciate their personal relationships, even more, amplifying the value of meaningful human connection.

For many who were employed during the pandemic, work was a constant, while the leisure activities that typically help use unwind were put on hold due to public health restrictions—so it’s no wonder that iStock found that Americans are most looking forward to travel, dining, and reconnecting with loved ones over returning to work. Thankfully, conversations about mental health at work are becoming more commonplace. According to Mind Share Partners, 65% of respondents reported having discussed their mental health with someone at work in the past year. However, only 49% described their conversations as positive.

Moving forward, we need to actively normalize these conversations, and in order to do that, organizations need to create a culture of safety and connection. To that end, visuals can be incredibly useful which is where our guidelines can help.

Bernie, we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about the need to depict more serious mental health topics with extra care and sensitivity.

One shortcoming we’ve seen in business and media communications is that they often only focus on the “wellness” angle of mental health. When it comes to combating stigma, this can help open the conversation to those who either historically didn’t self-identify as having a mental health challenge or found it to be a challenging or scary topic. But mental health includes an incredibly diverse spectrum of experiences, and oftentimes, companies and media don’t always acknowledge more challenging experiences, such as severe burnout, diagnosable mental health conditions or suicide. Suicide and media, in particular, have had a tenuous relationship, with research showing that irresponsible reporting of suicide can actually cause the spread of suicide cases. More recently with the ongoing racial injustices, traumatic visuals can re-traumatize individuals and trigger further challenges as well.

Mental health is a crucial part of the human experience. We want to approach the visualization and framing of mental health inclusively—inclusive of the full spectrum of mental health experiences, including the more challenging ones, inclusive of the diversity of people (that is, all people) who are on this spectrum of mental health, and inclusive of the subtleties in nuance around how we think about mental health, DEI, and our culture of work, while also showing what a healthy future of mental health could look like for everyone.

View the guidelines here.. To browse the curation, head to iStock.