“You’re the first person I’ve ever told about this,” Lexi said with tears in her eyes.
“How does it feel, telling me?” Sylvia calmly responded.
Lexi, struggling to speak… “Like an elephant’s taken one of its feet off my chest.”
“I’m so glad you’ve told me,” Sylvia said, with so much care on her face, “It explains so much. If anything, not knowing made it a little difficult to connect with you fully, the way I would have wanted.”
– A snippet from the Modern Love episode on bipolar living.
All people are different people. Just like my height, eye color, and thought process is different from yours – so is my mental health status. Our day-to-day experiences of highs and lows can cause us to fluctuate on a mental spectrum from good to poor, with or without warning. As an employer, showing and creating support for employees can go a long way in team successes at work.
Sadly it can often be a suffering-n-silence isolating experience, but It’s more around us than you may think. The Employer Assistance and Resource Network (EARN) shared that employees experience 3-4 “poor mental health days” per month in the US. Prioritizing mental health awareness is not only a moral imperative, but also shows to improve the employee experience (like engagement and output, and overall satisfaction). But increasingly work culture is learning how to support and incorporate mental health awareness, in a way that helps demystify approaching the subject. EARN has established the 4 A’s or pillars of practice as Awareness, Accommodations, Assistance, and Access, which help to improve and promote mental wellness (check out their checklist in the link). However, we all know that acknowledgment is just the first step.
It is important to educate employees and managers on mental health issues and take action to foster a supportive workplace culture. This includes overcoming the stigma of seeking treatment for mental illness. I personally love the growing trend of encouraging mental health days, as this goes a long way to help normalize expressing needs that are not visible to the outside world. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found in a recent survey that 26 percent of workers hid their mental health struggles from their supervisor, but they also found 15 percent of supervisors did nothing in response to learning about a direct report’s mental health struggles.
It is important for employers to take action when an employee discloses a mental health condition so that we create a culture where people feel comfortable discussing their mental health struggles and communicate that it is safe to do so. Be sure to take great notes, but also create a space for the employee to share comfortably. This may include:
Don’t leave it there. Follow up with them. Both to show your support goes beyond the meeting, but also to ensure clarity moving forward, especially if they made any requests to help accommodate where they’re at.
It can be so scary and vulnerable to admit a struggle so personal, and the first couple of times you need to bring it up can be equally as scary. Don’t turn it into the elephant in the room, that an employee can’t have a conversation with you and not have their mental state come up. But help them know it’s something you’re aware of, and want to know how they’re doing. Another step in that direction is ensuring employees are aware of the mental health benefits available to them and how to access them. This could look like providing information on the company’s employee assistance program (EAP), health insurance coverage for mental health treatment, referrals for local mental health providers, or other resources for mental health support.
It may seem like a lot of work or a large hurdle in front of you, requiring time and effort that you may feel cannot be spared. And while it’s true, it’s not an effortless walk in the park to foster an aware and accepting culture, the long-term benefits for employees and the organization as a whole make it well worth the investment. You’ll also help become the bar that your employees compare to when it comes to their future working endeavors.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to be an expert to navigate conversations about mental health in the workplace. Take a deep breath. It’s common to feel concerned about asking inappropriate questions or being unable to answer certain queries, but by fostering a culture that encourages open and honest communication while maintaining boundaries, individuals can receive the support they need. If discussing mental health with employees makes you nervous, here are three SHRM suggestions to keep in mind:
Whenever I’m going into a conversation that I don’t feel 100% confident in beforehand, I lower the stakes with a humble preface. Something like “As I go into this, please know I’m still figuring out how to communicate well about this and would love for you to ask questions to help me clarify what you’re hearing if something doesn’t make sense.” I do this so that the other party knows that A) I’m still learning, and B) I want them to take up space in the conversation. Providing an invitation to not only respond to what I’m saying but also to help me learn how to say it can be a great way to stay humble in acknowledging that you don’t know what you don’t know. As a wise person (who may or may not be my boss) says, humility always wins.
Now, as helpful as tips, keys, and conversational tools are, there’s no one winning strategy for approaching mental health in the workplace. All people are different people. And more than likely, there’s a bunch more going on behind the scenes than we’ve been clued into. SHRM has a handful of scenarios and suggestions of how they’d go about it that serve as great food for thought and a reminder to ask questions.
The need for mental wellness is certainly not new, but the more we’re learning about it is. So, if I was to leave you with a final thought, it would be this: you’re not alone, so let’s do this together. Deep breaths, everyone.
Written by: Noah Baker
February 21, 2023
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