How to respond when an employee shares a mental health challenge
- Be prepared for vulnerable conversations
- Set and protect boundaries
- Appearing is the most important thing
The Covid-19 pandemic has made us all vulnerable, and many of us are struggling to maintain our mental health. In the US, the percentage of adults with recent symptoms of an anxiety disorder or depression increased from 36.4% to 41.5% from 2020 to 2021 — so much so that the US Preventive Services Task Force, a panel of experts administered by the Department of Health and Human Services, recommended that doctors screened all adult patients younger than 65 years for anxiety. the lancet also estimated that the pandemic caused an additional 53.2 million cases of major depressive disorder worldwide and an additional 76.2 million cases of anxiety disorders worldwide.
So if one of your employees is struggling with mental health, how do you talk about it? While you’ll need to have conversations that feel intimate and daunting, it’s also not your job to be the office therapist, and you don’t need to have all the solutions when a team member is struggling. Like Daisy Auger-Dominguez, Director of People at Vice Media Group stressed to me: “We are not therapists, [but] we have to show evidence of care in our commitment to our teams. We also need to make sure that employees have access to the things they need to be able to do their jobs well.”
The good news is that it is possible to handle conversations about mental health without overreaching your expertise. And while it’s natural to worry that you’ll start asking the wrong questions or that your employee might ask questions you can’t answer, you can take steps now to create a culture where vulnerable conversations are okay, where boundaries are maintained and where people can get the help they need.
If having conversations about employee mental health makes you nervous, here are three things to remember:
- You’ll feel more confident if you have a few workplace mental health questions ready in your back pocket.
- You can protect your boundaries and the boundaries of your team while still having meaningful mental health discussions.
- Showing up is the most important thing.
Be prepared for vulnerable conversations
Jen Porter, director of operations for nonprofit workplace mental health consultancy Mind Share Partners, says all managers should be familiar with the basics of workplace privacy practices and have a set of questions in your back pocket for when mental health talks. happen.
Porter’s advice is to be curious about the impact of an employee’s mental health problems, not the cause. She says: “You can ask whatever you want about the impact of what is happening on her job and at work. That’s fair game.” What you shouldn’t ask, he says, is why the employee is having a hard time. Steer clear of “what’s going on at home, root causes, health history…anything that falls in that camp. That’s all therapist camp.”
In the US, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides one basic rule: you I can’t discriminate against someone based on health. This means that “you can’t force them to talk about their health,” Porter says. But you can address the impacts on the job, and the ADA too state Employers must provide “reasonable accommodations” to employees with disabilities, including mental illness.
Porter suggests asking open-ended questions and combining them with non-judgmental observations. “You can ask something like, ‘Hey, I noticed you’ve been absent from our regular meetings, I just wanted to check in and see how you were doing,’ or ‘You’re an amazing project manager, but a lot seems to have fallen by the wayside. I just wanted to check on you and see if you need any additional support or if you need to have a conversation with someone.’” These are very human, Porter notes, but it’s still about work.
However, if your employee does open up, what does he do? Says Porter, “Clearly they’ve found you’re a person they trust, well done.” Your job as a manager is to listen and then allow your employee to get help, but Porter emphasizes that you “don’t want your employee to feel like he’s leaving or giving up… We always recommend a more collaborative approach.” Getting closer.”
Auger-Dominguez agrees. “You can say, ‘I’m feeling a little overwhelmed right now. If you agree with you, I will confidentially contact Human Resources to make sure I give you all the support you need. And let’s meet again in a week.’” He might even suggest that you and the employee go to the human resources office or connect with a mental health employee resource group. “Just because they are receiving support from someone else does not mean they are [still] not get support from you,” Auger-Dominguez says. “It just means they’re getting support from multiple places and you can focus on where you can provide the right support, which is in a work-related context.”
If there is low trust in HR within an organization, Porter suggests connecting an employee with ERGs and peer-based groups, which tend to have higher trust among employees. “Often the people in those groups will have worked with human resources or tried mental health benefits. And sometimes telling stories and normalizing can be very helpful.”
Set and protect boundaries
Anytime you talk about mental health, personal boundaries come into play—the limits and rules we set for ourselves in our relationships. When we cross our own boundaries or those of others, things can feel awkward, emotionally draining, and just not right. Many managers fear becoming their employees’ go-to resource for mental health issues because we instinctively know our boundaries will be crossed, affecting our own energy and mood. This could lead us to avoid having vulnerable conversations with members of our team.
However, there is a way to have these conversations and protect boundaries, says clinical psychologist Dr. Emily Anhalt. When it comes to approaching how people should share in a work environment, Anhalt suggests using “limited vulnerability”: sharing enough with others to invite connection, without sharing so much that you or your team have an emotional hangover.
The idea, Anhalt says, is that “there is a spectrum from too narrow to too permeable. Too tight is when we don’t allow ourselves to be human at work. When we are going through a very difficult time and someone asks how we are doing and we say ‘I’m fine, everything is fine’. I do not know what you’re talking about'”. This doesn’t work well because people are perceptive and may feel that we are closing off the chances of an authentic connection. Too permeable is when people “evacuate so much of their emotional stuff at work that it puts other people in a position to be their therapist or fix something they’re not responsible for fixing.”
Let’s say a person is going through a complicated divorce. They are really overwhelmed and it is affecting their work. If they pretend everything is fine, that’s too narrow a line and not reality. You and your colleagues really want to know how the person is doing! But on the other end of the spectrum, saying something like “My spouse is being absolutely horrible to me and I don’t know what I’m going to do about it. Every day I wake up and I don’t know how I’m going to spend the day and I get here and it’s more of the same. What do you think i should do? How should I handle it?” – that’s too holey.
What is the middle ground? Anhalt says that the version of limited vulnerability would be for the person to say something like, “To be honest, I’m actually going through some pretty tough stuff at home. It’s definitely affecting how I present myself at work. I’m getting support with that. But what I would really love from you, if you’re open to it, is it a little extra time on that deadline? Is that feasible?
As managers, we can model limited vulnerability. If someone comes to us in a puddle, we can say, “I can tell you’re going through a lot, and I want to make sure you get the support you deserve through this.” In this situation, we are modeling our own boundaries while helping the person take the most appropriate next steps. Auger-Dominguez says he, too, can keep boundaries and support an employee by keeping structured time open for them. If he finds out about a mental health crisis during a one-on-one check-in, he might end that meeting by saying something like, “Our next scheduled meeting is in five days. Is it okay to wait until then? Or would you like to register earlier? Then honor their preference and show up for them at their desired time.
Also, as you set your own boundaries, it’s important to understand that our own anxieties and challenges can be triggered by helping our employees, says Arti Kashyap Aynsley, Ocado Group’s global head of health and wellness. Managers want to be “inclined to be empathetic and compassionate, but we have tasks and deliverables and things that need to be done,” and the day has limited hours. Managers can provide support and guidance, but other professionals in your organization likely have time and training dedicated to helping employees’ mental health.
However, he points out, because the rates of mental health problems are so high and so many people need extra support, companies must also give managers the time to adjust to the growing needs of their teams. It’s not fair to expect managers to support the needs of their teams without creating space for these conversations to happen.
Appearing is the most important thing
Perhaps the most important thing a manager can do to support employees is to show up and listen, and then find out what your employee needs.
Auger-Dominguez says that if a team member seems “a little wobbly,” he asks a simple question: “Do you need me to witness, assist, or distract you right now?”
This is important, “because if we are clear, I am also normalizing asking what people need, instead of making an assumption. It also creates clarity about what your expectations are of me as your manager. Sometimes they just want me to be a witness, so it’s not about me solving anything. It’s just about them. If they want help, I’ll help them get the resources they need.” And if the employee needs a distraction, Auger-Dominguez might say, “Hey, let’s go for a virtual walk or grab a coffee.” This strategy also helps build confidence. agency of your employees so they feel empowered to ask for help, instead of you trying to assume what they need.
The conversations you have with your employees are the culture you create. dr. Thomas Insel, former director of the National Institutes of Mental Health, grades that only 10% of mental health outcomes are the result of clinical mental health care. The determinants of mental health are broader and more social, and our workplaces are a huge factor in our mental health. Mentally healthy workplaces want employees to feel valued, heard, impacted, and have agency over their time, work, and decisions.