Work has always been stressful — but since the pandemic, mental health challenges have been on the rise in the workplace, and the need to support employees emotionally is crucial. Nearly half of adults in the US will experience some mental health struggle in their lifetime with 46% of workers in a recent study reporting mental health struggles since the pandemic started—an uptick of 6% from pre-Covid levels—and 55% saying they’ve struggled more with mental health since the pandemic began. These mental health struggles affect employees’ work in myriad ways. Some might have trouble focusing and completing assignments; others might clash with team members or behave erratically, and others might experience self-doubt and insecurity about their careers.
To help employees prevent, cope with, or recover from a mental health challenge, managers need to be able to spot warning signs and actively communicate support. A recent study by the Harvard Business Review shows these actions can make a significant positive impact. Workers who felt supported around mental health were “less likely to experience mental health symptoms, less likely to underperform and miss work, [as well as have] higher job satisfaction and intentions to stay at their company.” Unfortunately, the stigma around mental health means that many employees still don’t feel safe talking to their employer about their emotional needs. Most employees won’t admit when they are experiencing emotional difficulties like they would with physical issues. In a recent Aetna survey, more than a third of workers admitted to taking a sick day when dealing with psychological stress, indicating that they don’t feel at ease talking about or getting support for their mental health needs.
To support their employees’ needs and address their growing mental health challenges, employers need to destigmatize conversations around mental health, creating an environment where employees feel heard and supported as they navigate emotional challenges in the workplace. Here’s how you can do just that for your team.
What can you do as a leader or colleague?
Employers know that it’s important to listen to their employees’ needs, and most are making good faith efforts to do just that. But when it comes to creating a safe environment for employees to talk about their mental health challenges, a more active form of listening and communication is required.
Ask, listen, respond
Often, we use the same words to make small talk that we do to ask how someone is really feeling—and it’s hard for employees to know that we care and want to hear what’s going on with them emotionally. Instead of asking an employee how they are in passing, employers should work to create a deliberate space where they can get to know how their team members are doing. Try scheduling a one-on-one meeting with catching up with an employee as the primary goal. You can ask them how they are to start the conversation, but to get more honest answers, it can be helpful to phrase the question in different ways.
What’s been on your mind lately?
How is your mood? Have you been feeling down?
How can I support you best?
Did you get enough sleep in the past weeks?
How are you doing on a scale of 1😔 to 10 🥳?
Do you have issues currently on your mind that you wish I knew about?
Chances are, phrasing the questions more deliberately will let your employees know you care, and they will be more likely to share what they’re going through.
But it’s not enough to just ask — follow-up is critical. Make sure you follow up with meaningful, practical support, so they don’t feel left in the lurch. Be sure to ask them what you can do to help them, and incorporate their answers into a support plan you can make with your team and HR. And remember to schedule a follow-up meeting so you can check in on the employee and build an ongoing relationship of trust where they can communicate with you regularly.
Watch for the signs
Many employees need to take mental health leave for unexpected reasons — whether it’s an adverse reaction to medication or a difficult and expected life event. But many mental health struggles are cumulative and preventable. If employers can become fluent in detecting warning signs, they can intervene early to support their employees, figure out what the problem is, and take action to make work a better, more supportive place before problems get unmanageable. And if employees still need to take a leave of absence, they can do so knowing they have the full support of their team and a plan to integrate when they return.
The best way to gauge how your employees are doing is to check in with them regularly and ask them directly. But some employees might not feel comfortable admitting that they’re struggling — or might not know how to articulate it. That’s why it’s important to be on the lookout for shifts in behavior that might indicate deeper patterns of stress, depression, or anxiety.
The following is a non-exhaustive list of warning signs that you can look out for and share with HR officers and team leaders:
Sudden behavior changes: For example, a usually energetic employee acts lethargic for an extended period of time
Ongoing diminished work performance
Higher error and accident rates
Atypical interactions and behaviors
Frequent apologies for unfinished work
Social withdrawal and avoidance
When sharing this list with team leaders, it’s important to stress that this is not a template for monitoring struggling employees or holding them to a series of impossible standards. Instead, the list should be a guide that helps managers and HR leaders identify employees who are struggling so that they can better empathize and intervene with practical and emotional support. When you notice these patterns in your team members, it’s best to give them the benefit of the doubt, waiting until you understand what they’re going through before you form an opinion or formulate advice.
Open the dialogue
Creating a psychologically safe workplace starts with creating secure, open communication channels for employees to share their struggles and concerns. Here are a few scenarios that will require intentional, empathetic listening — and how employers can proactively talk about mental health with their employees, creating a culture of safety, support, and respect.
How to address a concerning change in an employee’s behavior
An employee struggling with mental health challenges likely feels overwhelmed by their reality and anxious that they’re not doing enough at work. They don’t need to feel harshly evaluated. That’s why it’s crucial to create a setting where you can bring up patterns you’ve noticed in a way that does create confrontation or lead to shame. The best way to achieve this is to keep the interaction warm but professional. Focus on work — the touchpoint you have in common — and let the employee let you in on what they want you to know about their broader life.
Avoid any leading statements that suggest you know the underlying reasons for someone’s behavior, such as “you seem stressed” or “you seem tired.” Instead, start from the point of care. You can begin by using phrases like “I’m worried that…” or “I can see that…”, filling in with observations about what you’ve noticed about work. Make sure to show appreciation for them as a person so that they know that they are valued — and be specific about any of the irregularities you’ve noticed. Leave space for them to respond with their opinion and perspective, but don’t pressure them. If they feel comfortable, they might give you context for some of these shifts in performance and behavior, helping you figure out how best to support them. But some might not be ready or interested in revealing personal challenges, in which case you can keep focusing on the work issues and figure out a support plan from there.
At this stage, it’s crucial to avoid mentioning any consequences to the employee or any negative impacts the performance might be having on the company. Instead, focus on how you can help. Ask them what they need to improve their situation, and use that information to create a plan for moving forward. Schedule a follow-up meeting to continue supporting them, showing that you’re serious about continuing to help them after the initial conversation. Note that it’s not always important to have a long discussion about the employee’s health or find all the answers to their problems right away. In this initial meeting, the goal is to build a sense of psychological safety so you and the employee can find a way forward together.
An employee reaches out to share they’re struggling with their mental health
It takes a lot of courage for an employee sharing that they are struggling with their mental health.. That’s why it’s critical for employers to respond with care and sensitivity, showing the employee that it’s safe and welcome for them to share with you and other team leaders whenever they’re going through a difficult time or coping with a long-term issue.
When the employee shares with you, remember to practice active listening. Let them know they are heard by giving them the space to speak. This is not the time to offer advice or opinions; the most important thing is that you are present and supportive and take what they are saying seriously — even if they downplay it. When they’ve finished sharing, ask them what you can do to support them and if there’s anything that they know would help them in particular. This helps you learn each employee’s emotional style. It also allows the employee to clue you into dynamics in the workplace that might be contributing to mental health problems — not just for them but for others. As you talk with different employees, keep track of what issues come up and reflect on the similarities in people’s experiences. Is there something in the processes and protocols of the office that might be contributing to the employees’ challenges? If so, address the symptoms at the root instead of passing the bucks to the workers.
Be sure to communicate clearly and regularly with the employee to check-in and express care and to let them know what actions you’re taking on their behalf to support them. This will build trust with the employee and help them see that you take their concerns seriously and are taking active steps to improve things. For example, if people keep complaining about the same issues like digital overload or constant interruptions, it may well be time to adjust those structures for a healthier work environment.
An employee is back from mental health leave
If worse comes to worst and one of your employees has to take a leave of absence due to mental health challenges, you must have a clear roadmap in place to help them smoothly rejoin the team. When they return, they might be through the thick of things, but they’re likely still in a tenuous place and will have to adjust to the transition.
During this time, it’s your job to be there to listen, support, and take action on your employee’s behalf. Start by welcoming them back to the team privately, letting them know that it’s good to have them back, and asking them how they’re doing. Make sure they know they can reach out anytime if they need anything. Sadly, relapses are common with many mental health issues, so creating as powerful a safety net as possible is critical.
On a larger scale, make sure that there is a plan for the employee’s reintegration. The employee and everyone involved knows about the plan and their role in the reintegration process — especially the manager and responsible person in HR. The employee will likely not want to be very public about their return, but there must be a safe space and support system where the employee can work through any fears they may have of being judged by their peers or stigmatized for taking a break. The best way to support employees starts by creating an office culture where everyone from leaders to entry-level employees feels free to talk openly about mental health, get mental health support, and take time off when needed to prevent overwhelm and burnout.
Creating a psychologically safe workplace
Learning to proactively listen and communicate with your employees is a vital first step to creating a workplace that feels safe and supportive to people experiencing mental health challenges. Intervening to prevent these struggles or address them as they occur is the second. Leaders can model openness and candor in their own professional lives by talking openly about their mental health, encouraging employees to take care of themselves physically and mentally, and standing behind employees when utilizing mental health resources. Ultimately, employees will look to the culture of a workplace — the actions and social norms, not the words — to determine whether they feel safe speaking out about their mental health needs. Leaders that create supportive cultures will go far to create environments where employees can thrive both physically and emotionally.
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