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10 Ways Managers Can Better Support Employee Mental Health

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When thinking about the changes that need to happen to make mental health a more acceptable topic at work, we often consider the high-level changes that need to happen in company policies to make our workplaces more accepting. The idea is that the macrocosm of driving better corporate policies and laws will in turn have a trickle-down effect and impact our day-to-day work lives. We are a long way from that happening, and there are great initiatives by larger mental health organizations spearheading this change. What I want to focus on today is the reverse of this idea.

If we make changes to the microcosm — meaning we educate and change the views of our managers and co-workers, or the people we interact with each and every day — we can have small but effective changes easily and without significant changes to company costs. The sad reality is that most managers today are not equipped to deal with an employee with a mental health concern. And how would they? They’ve never been trained, and the topic is not brought up unless there is already someone in crisis, which renders efforts too little, too late. It isn’t necessarily fair to put the blame entirely on the manager, but a manager has a responsibility to foster an environment where the employee is both supported and able to perform their job to the best of their ability. If either of those things is missing, it is that much harder for the employee.

I’ve had tons of managers throughout my career, and each one had a significant impact on me, and in turn, my mental health. I’ve even been in situations where I didn’t have a manager, and that was a long time ago — at the beginning of my career, when I needed support more than ever. I remember having no one to go to or ask for help, so my way of dealing with issues was to put on a brave face at my desk, and then have a quick, three-minute mental breakdown in the bathroom when things were a little quieter. These breakdowns were not pretty at all, and I would sometimes become physically ill — on the verge of passing out, or I’d throw up from the stress. No one noticed. There was no one to notice. Even if someone senior to me did notice, they never said a word because they were also dealing with their own stress. In those pivotal moments, having an understanding manager could have completely changed my experience.

The impact of a negative manager experience can be significant and cause reductions in employee morale, productivity and performance quality. On the flip side, I’ve thrived when a manager has had a positive response when I’ve explained a mental health concern.

My jobs have always primarily consisted of sitting at a desk, or in a meeting, with very few people. This works perfectly for me because my anxiety is heightened in crowded situations, or when an environment is too stimulating. One time, my team was asked to help out at an offsite event. There would be lots of people, it would be fast-paced and likely more than a little stressful. From the day I found out to the week of the event, I barely slept. I knew it wasn’t a situation I was equipped to handle.

Finally, I decided to talk to my manager. Throughout our conversation, she was understanding and sympathetic, and I found myself explaining in a low, shaky voice that I didn’t think it would be good for my anxiety or mental health, and braced for the ignorant and dismissive response I had heard so many times before.

Instead, I was met with more compassion than I could have imagined in my best case scenario. She agreed that it was definitely an anxiety-inducing situation, and I was under no obligation to participate. She then asked what type of response we could craft together if people asked, in case I wasn’t comfortable with people knowing about my anxiety. I was so relieved and shocked by how supportive she was that I felt I could cry. That is how a manager needs to respond to mental health concerns. Compassion first, details later. As a result of being given permission to make positive choices for my health, I found myself working harder than ever. And even though I didn’t participate in the event itself, I played an active role in getting things ready leading up to it, and took on extra to “hold the fort down” while people were at the event. Because my manager responded to my mental health issue appropriately, we turned my inability to participate in one thing into an opportunity to take charge in something else. A situation that could have indicated a lack of performance became a vehicle to drive better performance. When managers work together with their employees to support them, empower them and give them what they need, everyone benefits.

So, if you’re reading this, and you’re a manager (or hope to be one), please consider the following 10 tips to be better:

1. Take care of your own mental health.

If you aren’t looking out for yourself, and leading by example, then your employees will never feel they can take care of their mental health. You also cannot be supportive to others if you are not OK yourself.

2. Educate yourself.

Being educated on mental health concerns, mental illness and promoting positive mental health can be crucial to supporting your employees. Not only is this a key focus if you’re a manager, but just as a person in general because mental health is important and relevant to everyone.

3. Be kind to your employees.

You never know what types of challenges your team may be encountering outside of work, and as their leader you have the power to set the tone for others’ behavior.

4. Lead with empathy.

If someone comes to you and opens up about a struggle, show empathy first and then focus on the actions that need to be taken.

5. People first, work second.

Make sure your employees know that as people, they are more important than the work that needs to be done. Sometimes there will be deliverables or deadlines that cannot be delayed or compromised, but generally, people are more important and need to be reminded of this.

6. Check in.

When was the last time you asked an employee how they were doing, and really meant it? When was the last time you had a conversation, even for 30 seconds, about your team’s emotional or mental state with things? Do a pulse check, and if things aren’t going well, be ready to take action.

7. Look for warning signs.

Your team spends more time with you in a given day than they do with their spouse, children, friends or family. Therefore, you are the first person who should be able to notice the signs they may not be OK.

8. Provide frequent feedback.

There is nothing more stressful than not knowing how you’re performing and having a manager who doesn’t keep you updated so you get blindsided in a performance review. If someone does something well, tell them immediately. If someone isn’t performing, give them a chance to improve sooner rather than later.

9. Accept and adapt.

People have different needs, and they may require different accommodations. Be accepting and able to adapt to these differences. For example, if someone on your team gets severe anxiety and needs to work slightly different hours to avoid the subway during rush hour, encourage that.

10. Use your voice.

Employees don’t always have a loud enough voice to demand change at an organizational level. As a manager, you have the power to push that message up the chain that employee mental health matters, and that more needs to be done to empower yourself, your peers and your employees to meet their mental health needs.

Getty Images photo via MangoStar Studio

Originally published: May 21, 2019
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