Businesses have never been more aware of the importance of mental health than now. But paying mental health greater lip service doesn’t necessarily equip managers to actually deal with it any better in the workplace; nor does it help employees access the right support when they need it.
According to a recent UK survey, 30% of employees feel unable to speak openly to management about feeling stressed. It is the corporate responsibility of every business to ensure this barrier is removed. Mental health awareness is not enough; it needs to be coupled with actual action.
There are a ton of useful free resources online to help managers better support employee mental health. This short list synthesizes some of the most pressing – from mental health training and investment in employee wellbeing, to becoming a more empathetic and approachable leader.
1. Learn about mental health issues
You don’t need to be a psychiatrist or psychologist to learn about mental health. As the main cause of long-term sickness absence in one in five companies, mental health issues affect us all – we just need to get better at learning about them. This starts with training yourself and your staff on mental health and stress management. Since disorders like anxiety and depression are very common, it’s important that everyone knows how to spot early warning signs and manage stress.
Some warning signs are more obvious that others, and the quality of workplace relationships can make the difference between proactive and reactive support. Build a trusting, supporting culture and try to get to know your employees personally. With this emotional intelligence, you’ll be able to spot any changes in their behaviour, and – perhaps more importantly – colleagues will be more likley to volunteer what they’re going through.
2. Understand the causes of workplace stress
While stress itself isn’t an illness, it can lead to other conditions such as anxiety and depression – some of the most prevalent mental health issues in the workplace. Stress can also lead to insomnia, exhaustion, lost concentration, and a whole host of serious physical health problems. You should be aware of the six main causes of work-related stress:
- The demands of the role – when employees can’t handle the quantity of work they have, or the type of work they’re supposed to do;
- Amount of control over work – when employees feel disillusioned because they have little (or zero) say over how and when they do their work;
- Support from managers – when employees feel they can’t talk to their superiors about issues that are concerning them;
- Relationships at work – when workplaces relationships falter, other problems can arise, like bullying, personal grievances or discipline issues;
- How a role fits within the company – when an employee isn’t sure what’s expected of them, or doesn’t understand how their role fits into company objectives;
- Change and the way it’s managed – when employees feel uncertain or insecure about changes in the company.
3. Monitor employee performance
Wellbeing directly affects an employee’s engagement, motivation and productivity at work. Watching out for changes in employee performance can help you offer proactive support to anyone who might be struggling. This doesn’t have to be intrusive or time-intensive – consent-based performance tracking apps can capture and share this information automatically for you. In particular, you’ll want to keep an eye on:
- Hours and overtime – is anyone continually staying late or working unplanned overtime? It may be a sign they are struggling to focus, or conversely that they are too engaged and headed for mental exhaustion. Any upset in a healthy work/life balance should sound an alarm.
- Workload – are any of your employees working beyond their weekly capacity? Do they have too many tasks? Are tasks evenly distributed throughout the week, or sporadic?
- Downtime – are people taking their full holiday entitlement? Are they taking longer breaks, or not taking them at all? Is anyone working on the weekend?
- Productivity – is anyone making uncharacteristic errors or spending longer than usual on their tasks?
- Absence – a lot of employees call in physically sick because they feel they can’t ask for time off to manage their mental health. Keep an eye on absence patterns and adopt an openly supportive policy of mental health sick days to normalize mental health management.
4. Normalize conversations around mental health
Leadership can make or break a company’s approach to mental health, and can also directly impact the occurrence of mental health problems. Research shows that lack of managerial support is one of the most commonly cited factors in employee stress, anxiety and depression. It makes psychological safety at work virtually impossible, making it unlikely that employees will actually ask for help.
You need to create a safe, non-judgement culture in which people can speak openly about mental health and actively ask for support when they need it. As a manager, that requires you to be approachable, empathetic and able to normalize conversations about mental health. Regular check-ins are a great place to start, but there are other ways you can create space for people to discuss, raise issues and ask questions about mental health. These can include:
- Regular one-to-one meetings
- Focus groups
- Staff forums and surveys
- Monthly performance review meetings
- Team away days
- Problem solving events
- Facilitation workshops
- Setting up internal channels – like Slack groups
5. Prioritize wellbeing throughout your company
To be effective, your mental health support needs to be structural – woven into the very way your company operates, acts and thinks. That starts with communicating that mental health will be actively supported on the same terms as physical health – meaning employees are entitled to sick days to manage their mental health. It also means investing in building an open, supportive culture in which people feel they can ask for support and share their experiences.
Beyond this, you need tangible policies and strategies to ensure people receive the support they need. This means creating clear channels for raising concerns, protecting spaces two-way dialogue, providing access to resources and information, ensuring people with mental health problems are heard, and embedding mental health in staff inductions and training. In a nutshell, it means working mental health support into the very DNA of your company.
6. Practice what you preach
The actions of leadership have a huge impact on employee behavior. No matter how many positive policies you promote, if you’re not acting on them yourself, your employees won’t feel permitted to do so either. One of the clearest ways to send the message to your staff that their wellbeing matters is to lead by example.
Take full lunch breaks and work sensible hours to encourage employees to do the same. Promote a good work/life balance by switching off at the end of the day – resisting the temptation to reply to emails late at night, over the weekend, or on vacation. If you take mental health sick days, broadcast the fact you’re doing this to normalize looking after your wellbeing. Set the precedent for your team by letting them know just how highly you value downtime – you’d be surprised at how important this visible validation can be.
7. Offer tailored support
There is no simple fix to mental health problems – management for one employee can look very different for another dealing with a similar issue. So your support needs to be individualized. While everyone should have access to ongoing feedback and coaching, you need to listen to people to know how to flex your management style to meet their needs. That starts with asking them what they need from you to reach their goals, and what they think of the support you currently provide.
There are a ton of different ways you can offer support as a manager – here are just a few low-cost adjustments you can use:
- Providing opportunities for training and development – whether work- or resilience-related
- Offering mentoring or an informal buddy support system
- Increased supervision to help manage workloads and hours
- More one-to-ones or channels for giving feedback
- Recognizing, reflecting on and broadcasting positive achievement
- Improving the structure or delivery of feedback itself
- Offering remote and flexible working
- Creating mental health support groups
- Providing a safe space within the workplace for time out
- Holding debriefing sessions after difficult projects and tasks
- Making changes to roles – changing job descriptions and duties, supporting people to work with other departments, or transitioning people to entirely new roles
- Introducing phased return-to-work policies
- Providing quiet rooms and workspace adjustments