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May 14, 2021
How Managers Should Talk to Employees About Mental Health Issues
Written by: Adrienne Moberg
With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s the perfect time to talk about the impact of mental health in the workplace and how managers can successfully navigate these challenges.
According to the 2021 Mind in the Workplace Report conducted by Mental Health America, 9 in 10 employees report that stress in the workplace is impacting their mental health and 4 in 5 are feeling emotionally drained. The National Institute of Mental Health also reports that about 1 in 5 adults are living with mental illness.
Unfortunately, because of stigma, many people who may be in distress, do not speak up or seek help. And the financial costs of stress for companies are well documented.
With this kind of prevalence, it’s clear that every manager probably has encountered the effects of a mental health issue in the workplace. But what’s not always so clear, is how managers can best support employees in managing their mental health issues or how to address various challenges and resulting workplace situations that may arise.
In addition to understanding how prevalent mental health issues are, it’s also important to remember that emotional problems affect everyone from time to time.
Mental health disorders can be viewed on a continuum from mild to severe – from being well, to having some transient emotional distress, to having severe mental health conditions. The more severe the problem, the more it can affect work, personal life, and relationships. With treatment, balance can help be restored.
Managers should also be aware of how discrimination and disparities in physical and mental health care may be impacting their workforce (check out our previous blog post on Minority Mental Health).
Although a reaction to a situation or event may seem odd to an outsider, it is important to remember that a person will respond according to what makes them feel safe or will relieve the most distress.
Here are a few tips for managers to help them understand and how to manage issues that may arise in the workplace while maintaining professional boundaries:
- Many factors contribute to our mental health.
Mental health problems do not just arise out of one thing; there are many contributing factors, and the cause of mental disorders is not fully known. Factors can include our genetics, brain chemistry, personal history, life experiences such as exposure to trauma and physical or psychological abuse, events such as a divorce, job loss, or loss of a loved one, as well as a family history of mental health or substance misuse problems. Even societal factors like discrimination and current events like the Covid-19 pandemic can contribute to someone experiencing symptoms of mental health distress or make it much harder for one to manage an existing but treatable condition.
- Mental health doesn’t just impact the way a person thinks.
Many people assume mental health only affects a person’s thoughts. It also influences a person’s perceptions about themselves and others, how they perceive situations as well as the choices they make, and how they respond to a given situation. It can impact a person’s physical health as well.
- Mental health emergencies may occur in the workplace.
A mental health emergency in the workplace could look like an employee being visibly upset (yelling, crying, shaking), being under the influence of alcohol or drugs, talking about or making threats of suicide, or threatening violence against others. It’s important to note here that the vast majority of individuals with mental health conditions are not violent and do not pose any threat to others.
As a manager, you need to be prepared and know your policies so that you can stay calm and address the situation in a sensitive and professional manner. Also, make sure your organization has a robust mental health support service such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Additionally, employers should consider not just reactive programs, but those that can proactively help employees identify risk factors and intervene before a crisis occurs. Espyr offers products such as Realyze and Well-being Screening programs that proactively identify high-risk situations before they result in more serious and more costly mental health conditions.
Guidelines for talking about mental health concerns with employees
Here are some guidelines to keep in mind when speaking with an employee about sensitive mental health issues in your workplace.
- First, choose an appropriate place and time, somewhere quiet with no interruptions if possible.
- Share your impression of what you have seen or heard. Give factual descriptions of what you witnessed. Then let the employee explain in his or her own words how their mental health concern manifests and triggers. They may explain how it may be impacting their work and what support they need from their employer.
- Listen and support your employee. While you may not understand what they are going through, use words that are non-judgmental and show your support.
- Stay focused on the work issue you have seen/heard and what is expected of someone in their position. Be clear and honest about job expectations and consequences for continued work issues.
- Refer to your Employee Assistance Program- informally or formally. Based on the nature of what is shared, you may want to offer something other than the EAP for help or make a formal referral. Consult with a management consultant if you would like to do a formal referral. Don’t try to be a diagnostician or counselor, and don’t think that you have to have all the answers or solutions.
- Develop an action plan with your employee and set up a follow-up meeting. Work with your employee to adjust or make changes that will help them to do their job better. Give a timeframe for when the improvements need to be made and set up a follow-up meeting to review progress.
- Get guidance from your Human Resources consultant, especially if the employee is asking for reasonable accommodations. Follow your organization’s policies on what information is needed to provide accommodations.
- Besides your Human Resources consultant, keep in mind that you may very well have another invaluable resource in situations like this- a behavioral health professional at your Employee Assistance Program. You may seek out their guidance and support for yourself as a manager through your EAP. Call your EAP anytime to discuss your concerns and how to handle this type of situation. At Espyr we provide unlimited consultation to managers and to HR professionals to help them address almost any kind of employee or workplace challenge. And it's all provided by experienced, licensed mental health professionals attuned to issues around mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.
About the Author
Adrienne Moberg, LCSW, CEAP is the Customer Experience Manager at Espyr. Adrienne has over 15 years of behavioral health experience including in EAP, domestic violence, community mental health and substance abuse treatment settings.
For over 30 years Espyr, has provided innovative mental health solutions – solutions like our AI powered chatbot, TESS – to organizations operating under some of the most challenging conditions. Espyr’s portfolio of customized counseling, coaching and consulting solutions help people and organizations achieve their full potential by providing mental health support and driving positive behavioral change. For more information on how Espyr can help your organization, call Espyr at 888-570-3479 or click here.
Mental Health America, Mind the Work Place, https://www.mhanational.org/mind-workplace
National Institute of Mental Health, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness#:~:text=Mental%20illnesses%20are%20common%20in,(51.5%20million%20in%202019)