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Mental Health in the Workplace: How Managers Can Make a Difference

Mar 01, 2021

Stressed businessmanTrue, mental health in the workplace is everyone's job. But if you're a business owner, leader or manager— or all three—workplace mental health really has to start with you.

Thankfully, it's not as hard, expensive or touchy-feely as it sounds. Here are simple steps you can take, along with why addressing mental health in the workplace is no longer a nicety but a necessity.

Why mental health in the workplace matters more than ever

In the prolonged age of COVID-19, the question of why mental health in the workplace matters practically answers itself. To gain perspective on how much life has changed, consider the highly respected Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory, which assigns points to various life stressors. 

The purpose of the inventory is to help someone get a handle on just how stressed they are. Yet because it predates our current world situation, it makes no mention of the following: 

  • Living through a pandemic
  • Adjusting to working from home
  • Working in highly stressful, potentially unsafe conditions when working from home is not an option
  • Helping kids cope with closed schools and learning online
  • Caring for loved ones whose health was already compromised
  • Losing a friend, family member, or some dreadful combination of both 
  • The existential grief that runs through all of these things

When you read an instrument like the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory through the lens of today, it sounds like something out of the 1950s. So it's no surprise that your employees—and you—might be struggling to keep mental health in check.

In addition to the humanitarian reasons listed above, compromised mental health leads to absenteeism, lost productivity (sometimes referred to as "presenteeism;" i.e., showing up physically yet not being fully functional), as well as complicated, expensive medical problems. 

How leaders and managers can improve mental health in the workplace

"The wellness of a company’s workforce is a key factor in productivity and profitability. Like any major change, the involvement of the CEO is central to success." — Garet Staglin, Co-Founder, One Mind at Work

Yes, it starts with the CEO. But most employees are influenced most heavily by their manager. Which means if you lead a team, you have an opportunity to shape how your direct reports experience workplace mental health on a daily basis. Here are some tips to get you started: 

1. Talk about it. End the taboo.

"We want everyone to know that it's okay not to be okay." — Cisco

In spring 2019, I had the privilege of hearing two representatives of Cisco speak at a national conference. Their topic: mental health in the workplace, and how it had become a core part of their company culture.

It started with a simple, heartfelt email, sent companywide by CEO Chuck Robbins, not long after the deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade. In it, he expressed concern for anyone in his company who might be struggling.

The outpouring of responses set Cisco on a new path. They were determined to change the conversation around mental health, so that no one would have to struggle alone. Here's a good summary of what I heard that day.  

Something as simple as an email can open the floodgates to deeper conversations. Just be sure you're willing and prepared to do something meaningful with the responses you receive. If you hang in there, even when it's uncomfortable, you will ultimately unleash a great deal of employee engagement, productivity and creativity—not for a season but a lifetime. 

2. Model your expectations. 

"It is no coincidence that one key difference between illness and wellness involves 'I' and 'we.'" — Ron Manderscheid, PhD

For example, if you want your team to open up to you and each other, open up to them. Your team will take their cues for how much they can disclose by watching you. Do you play it safe or go out on a limb?  

As I've said before, the point here is not to turn your team into your therapists, but to share openly about your own struggles—and how you're handling them. Nothing humanizes a leader like showing a vulnerable side. And nothing puts up a barrier like pretending you are fine. (I once heard a pastor say that "FINE" stands for "Feelings Inside Not Expressed.")

3. Create the conditions that alleviate the problem. 

“Sufficient sleep, exercise, healthy food, friendship, and peace of mind are necessities, not luxuries.” —Mark Halperin

Granted, the following suggestions might not erase the problem. But they can keep it from getting worse, or harder than it has to be—which might be the best place to start. 

  • Encourage your team to have a life outside of work. This means, among other things, not expecting email responses outside business hours. 
  • If you're going to have a Slack channel or similar venue where employees can safely share, make sure they experience it that way. If they don't, the effort will do more harm than good. 
  • Set the tone with your language and conduct. I have seen well-intended leaders throw around racial slurs, tell inappropriate jokes, and casually use terms like ghetto, bipolar and even suicide in ways that were meant to be humorous but were anything but. Be better than that. Be someone your team can look up to. 
  • Know when to encourage paid time off (PTO) and when to encourage a disability leave. A mental-health day might be a good use of PTO; however, if the need is more severe, and a disability leave is an option, encourage employees to use it.
  • When in doubt, show respect and compassion. Ask simple questions such as, "What do you most need  right now?" or "How can I help?" Sometimes there's nothing you can do. Hard as it is, be willing to accept that.
  • Promote mental health as much as physical health. This could be the focus of a whole separate post.

Let your initiatives around workplace mental health permeate your entire culture—from your language and conduct to your company policies, both written and unwritten. You don't have to do it all at once. And you don't have to do it alone. Start with the smallest step. If it can work for Cisco, why not you?

P.S. As a manager, you may be surprised to know that the best thing you can do for your team's mental health is to invest in your own. Having a coach in your corner can make all the difference. Interested?  Reach out to me today


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