How Leaders Can Support Employees’ Mental and Emotional Wellness
In my ten years as an executive development expert in a large organization, I have heard more than once a manager question the mental health of their employees. I have vivid memories of a young manager who looks me in the eye and I wonder if her coworker was “bipolar” because she seemed to have constantly changing moods. It didn’t seem that this employee’s performance was terribly bad. It was just uncomfortable at times.
Internally, I was reluctant because I actually have bipolar disorder along with anxiety and depression. I kept a poker face, distracted her from playing chair psychiatrist, and talked about how she could motivate her team while addressing real breaches of performance expectancy. Let’s put the company’s buzzwords aside: Executives don’t know how to treat their employees. mental and emotional health.
Leaders are encouraged to coach, motivate, and inspire their teams, but they are not well prepared to deal with the mental health issues some employees have. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five adults in the United States has a mental illness. However, it is estimated that only half of those affected are treated. In a 2014 study of people with depression, concerns about the impact on their workplace were the fourth leading reason they didn’t seek treatment.
As companies adopt concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion, their plans should include ways to support employees with mental illness, not just physical disabilities.
Stopping the stigma against mental illness can begin with leadership. Managers play an important role in the daily performance and wellbeing of their employees. Below are some do’s and don’ts that can help a leader become committed to mental and emotional well-being.
Show concern but don’t force admission.
A good leader is compassionate and empathetic. They routinely ask about the needs and comfort of their employees. They are more likely to show concern than biased judgment when an employee appears to be struggling. However, assuming an employee has a mental illness or pressuring them to admit they’ve breached a privacy limit and you might even get you in hot water with HR. If an employee seems upset, apathetic, angry, or otherwise not doing well, ask open-ended questions about the state of affairs. Let the employee give you feedback on how they feel about a particular situation or their work in general. You will only know the real story if you listen.
Do not be afraid of your employees if they are mentally ill.
Anxiety is a great isolator, both for a mentally ill person and for those who pretend to care for them. Your mentally ill employee is not a freak or a failure or a danger to others. They are in good health and are trying their best to function and make a living. Showing fear or other negative judgments will drive your coworker further into emotional hiding, which can lead to bigger problems if they don’t feel like they can ask for help. Show that you care and ask what you can do to help.
Do not condone bigotry against mental illness.
During a rough week, an employee might joke that they all need to “pop a Xanax”. Xanax, like blood pressure drugs or insulin or chemotherapy, is a very real drug that is prescribed by a doctor for a very real state of health. If you wouldn’t tolerate jokes about physical illness or impairment, don’t let go of it because of mental health problems.
If team members discriminate against an employee who may or may not be suffering from a mental illness, it should be emphasized that it will not be tolerated. Contact your recruiter if you need help.
Create an emotionally secure and inclusive work environment.
Trust in a team doesn’t always come about overnight, but it can be built over time. Be kind and respectful. Treat people the way they would like to be treated. Set clear expectations for performance and ask your employees what they expect from you. Communicate with your co-workers frequently and show that they can communicate with you openly. Show that you value differences and diversity in your team.
Find out about diversity and inclusion in the workplace, including mental health.
Read the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) fact sheet on mental illness in the workplace and what others can do to help employees do their best and feel best at work. Make use of your workplace offering’s training on diversity, equity and inclusion. Build confidence about your own prejudices and commit to changes that are necessary. Show your commitment to diversity and inclusion to your employees.
Appreciate the mental and emotional wellbeing of all of your employees.
Not everyone has mental health status, but everyone has mental and emotional health needs that can be neglected in a busy or stressful work environment. Make sure your employees have the right resources and support to get their jobs done. Allow people to take breaks and free time, and promote a culture of healthy work-life balance. Determine what you as a leader can do to make the workplace more welcoming, relaxing, and positive. Ask your team for feedback on what it takes to feel happy and healthy at work.
By adopting these practices, leaders can transform the workplace into a more inclusive environment where employees can do their best job while feeling supported and secure.
Written by Melanie D Gibson.