The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated mental health concerns among adults worldwide, with an average of 45% of adults globally reporting that their mental and emotional health has worsened since the beginning of the pandemic, according to a survey by market research firm Ipsos and the World Economic Forum.
Although mental health is first and foremost a human priority, it’s also a business one: BusinessSolver’s 2021 State of Workplace Empathy report found that employers lose an average of $44 billion per year in lost productivity due to depression alone. Further, Dr. Heather Bolton, clinical psychologist and head of psychology at workplace mental health platform Unmind, says that job-seekers are “increasingly prioritizing mentally healthy companies” and that building a “supportive culture of openness” around mental health is imperative for companies hoping to attract and retain talent.
Here are three practical tips for managers looking to support their employees’ mental health for a happier, and higher-performing, workforce.
1. Do Your Homework
While mental health conditions can present themselves in myriad ways, there are common warning signs managers should keep an eye out for in their employees, says Dr. Oliver Harrison, chief executive officer of KOA Health. These include (but are not limited to):
● Erratic changes in behavior.
● Becoming withdrawn.
● Changes in eating or sleeping behaviors; appearing exhausted.
● Taking more time off or sick days than usual.
● Working after hours; having a hard time setting work-life boundaries.
Although mental health awareness training should in no way be designed to “equip anyone to assume the role of a psychologist or therapist,” Bolton says, “It needs to equip [managers] with enough knowledge and skills to recognize when someone is struggling, give them the confidence to open a supportive conversation and arm them with the knowledge to signpost them to the right support.” To proactively support employee well-being, managers should conduct regular pulse check-ins with their team members, Bolton says.
Training should also teach managers which internal and external resources (i.e., websites, guides, helplines, employee assistance programs and other health benefits) are available so they can recommend them to employees looking for additional support, says Lee Rossini, vice president of marketing at Limeade, an employee experience software provider.
For maximum impact, Rossini says that training should allow managers to ask questions and walk through real-world scenarios and include “recommended actions to take in order to support others on their mental health journey.”
2. Walk the Walk
In a recent report, KOA Health, a digital well-being and therapeutics solution, found that at least 60% of U.S. workers don’t feel comfortable talking about their mental health or emotions at work. This hesitation is understandable: In its “2020 Employee Care Report,” Limeade found that 47% of people who have disclosed a mental health issue at work have experienced a negative consequence. “This exposes a major flaw in how employers are currently supporting employee mental health,” Rossini says. Harrison says that the “enduring stigma” of mental health conditions is a major challenge, often turning minor setbacks into larger mental health (and performance) issues down the line.
“Managers need to create a safe space for employees to share how they are feeling,” Rossini says. “When employees don’t feel comfortable enough to do so, it creates a real disconnect.” To create a space in which employees are comfortable voicing their mental health concerns, managers can’t just talk the talk: They need to walk the uncomfortable walk of being open and honest about their own struggles. Managers set the tone for what’s OK to talk about at work and what’s not, Harrison says. When leaders are vulnerable and authentic, it creates permission for others to do the same.
Of course, talking about mental health isn’t easy. Training on core soft skills like empathy, communication, vulnerability and self-awareness can empower leaders to have difficult conversations, and immersive technologies like virtual reality (VR) can help them practice in a realistic but low-stakes environment.
3. Keep Your Own Gas Tank Full
Managers are responsible for guiding their team members through uncertainty and helping them reach their full potential. However, as Harrison puts it, “You can’t pour out of an empty cup.” Supporting your employees’ mental health starts with prioritizing your own. After all, “being a manager doesn’t make you immune to life’s struggles,” Bolton says. Make time for self-care, pay attention to your own mental and emotional state, lean on your support network and take time off when you need it, she says.
It’s also important to develop discipline around time off and after-work hours. When managers fail to set healthy boundaries and work seeps into coveted personal and family time, performance “falls off very, very rapidly,” Harrison says. It also sets a poor example for employees, who may feel like they are expected to respond to emails or complete work tasks after hours.
Investing in leisure time, hobbies and maintaining a social life are “actually very sound investments in your professional career,” Harrison says, helping you to sustain your pace of work in the long-term. That hobby you have been wanting to try, language you have been wanting to learn or vacation you have been wanting to take (amid safe COVID-19 travel guidelines) might be just what the doctor — and your bottom line — ordered.
The coronavirus pandemic amplified conversations about employee well-being as companies looked to support their people through the crisis. But it shouldn’t take a global pandemic to talk about mental health at work. Even after the crisis subsides, managers and their organizations will be smart to prioritize employee mental health because when employees feel supported, valued and happy in their roles, everyone wins.