Like many managers, you probably checked in with your employees throughout last spring when the Covid-19 crisis first started. But you need to keep doing it. As the pandemic drags on, there is a rising number of people who are struggling with mental health issues. As a manager, you don’t want to overstep, but you can — and should — open up a conversation with your employees about how they are doing. The author has several suggestions for how to do that, including, talking about health holistically, avoiding making your employees feel like they are “broken,” and actively listening. Of course, it’s not your job to be your employees’ therapist, but it is your role to create an open, inclusive, and safe environment that allows them to bring their whole selves to work.
It’s been called a “second pandemic” — the mental health implications of the global health crisis, political unrest, economic uncertainty, rising unemployment, social isolation, remote work, home schooling, and so much more. And while it can feel like the first pandemic has been with us long enough for employees to have accessed the necessary resources and strategies for handling their stress, the fact is, many of us are struggling more, not less.
You may have checked in with your employees back in April when the crisis was acute, but you need to keep doing it.
Talking about mental health can feel tricky at best and terrifying at worst, however. And it becomes a vicious cycle — the less people talk about it at work (even when they know they and others are struggling), the more the stigma grows. To break this cycle, you have to address the issue proactively, strategically, and thoughtfully. After all, the way we talk to others who are dealing with anxiety (and to ourselves) has a major impact on how we feel
Managers have a responsibility to their employees to create an open, inclusive, and safe environment that allows them to bring their whole selves to work. In her article “We Need to Talk More About Mental Health at Work,” Morra Aarons-Mele shares research showing that “feeling authentic and open at work leads to better performance, engagement, employee retention, and overall wellbeing.”
Leaders at all levels need to put mental health “on the table” — to talk about it, invite others to talk about it, and work actively to develop resources and plans for their employees. This is how to reduce mental health stigma while increasing the likelihood that your colleagues feel happier, more confident, and more productive.
So how do you start talking about a topic that can make even the bravest leader worry about overstepping? Here are three ways:
Talk about health holistically.
Chances are that you’d ask your co-worker about the back pain they’ve been experiencing since they started working from home. You’d probably also ask your team member about the tendon they tore on a recent run. You might even share an update about your seasonal allergies or your indigestion. When you’re asking about someone’s health, make a note to ask about their mental health too. It can be as simple as, “It sounds like your back pain is getting better. That’s good news. And how’s your mental health these days? I know these can be very stressful times — and please let me know if I’m overstepping.” (And then stop talking.)
It’s helpful if you are willing to share your own struggles, too, because it normalizes the discussion. You might try, “My allergies are keeping me up at night — and so is my anxiety. It’s really hard to get a solid night’s sleep when I’m worried about my kids’ safety at school. How about you? What’s keeping you up at night?” (And then again, stop talking.) It’s important to note that if you haven’t had a close connection with a particular employee in the past, your relationship may be low on psychological safety. To start building that up, take small steps. You might say something like, “I know that you and I haven’t typically talked about non-work topics, but for me, work and non-work feel like they’re blurring together these days. How are you doing with that?”
Don’t try to fix people.
Leaders often succeed by navigating difficult situations and solving complex problems. But people don’t like to be “fixed,” so don’t try. An employee who believes you see them as broken may worry that you don’t see them as capable or credible, which can undermine their confidence and competence. Approach your colleagues with the mindset that they are resourceful, able, and may need your support but not necessarily solutions. You want to be a bridge to resources, rather than being the resource yourself.
If someone shares that they are struggling, try saying:
- “What would be most helpful to you right now?”
- “What can I take off your plate?”
- “How can I support you without overstepping?”
- “Let’s discuss the resources we have available here, and what else you might need.”
- “I’ve been through something similar. And while I don’t want to make this about me, I’m open to sharing my experience with you if and when it would be helpful.”
Financier Bernard Baruch said, “Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.” But it’s not enough to just listen; you need to do it well. But that’s not always easy — especially now when our own preoccupations, distractions, biases, and judgements get in the way.
If you want to create an environment where your employees feel heard, respected, and cared for, here’s how:
- Be clear with yourself and your colleague that your intention for listening is to help.
- Suspend judgement (of yourself and the other person) by noticing when an “approving/disapproving” thought enters your mind. Let it pass or actively send it away.
- Focus on your colleague and their experience, being sure to separate their experience from yours.
- Listen for overall themes, such as social isolation or financial concerns, and don’t get mired in the details, which can distract you from the big picture of what’s going on with them. Since you’re there to support them, rather than solve their problems, you don’t need to know the specifics.
- Listen with your eyes as well as your ears. Notice changes in facial expressions, which can give you some cues to what the person is actually feeling — which may be different from what they’re saying.
- Recognize that when you start thinking to yourself, “What am I supposed to do?” you’ve stopped listening.
- Let your colleague know if something is interfering with your ability to really listen, whether it’s an urgent email, your child demanding your attention, or your own stress — and offer to reschedule your conversation for a time when you can really attend to them.
As World Health Organization ambassador Liya Kebede said, “Helping others isn’t a chore, it is one of the greatest gifts there is.” Your willingness to open up an honest conversation about mental health with your employees is exactly the kind of gift that so many people want and need right now.