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Supporting Mental Health at Work

Supporting Mental Health at Work

Your mental health matters. It impacts your relationships with your team members, your decision-making abilities, and how you show up at work, setting the groundwork for your future and your team’s success. Mental health problems are increasingly common; one in four of your colleagues lives with mental illness, and roughly 85% of employees’ mental health conditions are undiagnosed or untreated. Knowing how to identify mental health problems, creating a psychologically safe culture where mental health is discussed openly, and understanding how to address mental health problems are essential for bringing out the best in your people.

The Cost of Unaddressed Mental Illness

When your employees are physically at work but mentally absent, the quality of work plummets, and productivity suffers. Think about when you experienced a stressful situation at home, whether relationship troubles, financial insecurity, caregiving responsibilities, etc. When you’re at work, it’s impossible to leave your problems at the door; they follow you as relentless distractions, stealing your focus and sapping your concentration and energy. These challenges cost the workplace billions – the WHO attributes $1 trillion in lost productivity due to anxiety and depression alone! The health of your team also suffers when their physical and mental health isn’t supported; cardiovascular and metabolic diseases are 2x higher in adults with serious mental illness.

What mental illness looks like in the workplace

You spend one third of your life at work, so recognizing the signs of mental health issues and understanding how they can impact your team is paramount to creating an environment where your team can succeed in their work and well-being. You typically can’t tell by appearance alone when someone is struggling with mental illness. For example, a coworker living with high-functioning anxiety may be able to mask the impact. However, you can be on the lookout for behavioral or temperament changes, including:

  • Changes in behavior or mood or interactions with colleagues.
  • Changes in work output, motivation levels, and focus.
  • Struggling to make decisions, get organized and find solutions to problems.
  • Appearing tired, anxious, or withdrawn, and losing interest in activities and tasks they previously enjoyed.
  • Changes in eating habits, appetite, and increased smoking and drinking.

How to have the conversation

There’s no need to feel awkward when bringing up concerns about a colleague’s mental health. You aren’t there to diagnose the problem or speculate the meaning or cause. You’re there to let them know you noticed and that you care. Here are a few ways you can approach the subject:

What to say

  • “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.”
  • “I want to take some time to touch base about how you’re doing. I’ve noticed you don’t seem exactly like yourself. Is there anything you’re concerned about? How could we help you feel more at ease and supported at work?

What to do

  • Choose a quiet, private location for the conversation where the other party feels comfortable. Consider a neutral space outside of the workplace.
  • Encourage them to talk by asking simple, open, and nonjudgmental questions. Allow the person plenty of time to explain in their own words about their mental health problem, how it affects them, and what support they need.
  • Don’t make assumptions or try to guess what symptoms an employee has and how it affects their ability to do their job. Many people can manage their mental health and excel in their role; they may simply require additional support when experiencing a difficult period.
  • Practice active listening by focusing on the person, not the problem. Recognize that mental illness manifests differently for each person and understand the support they require will be unique to the individual.
  • Be honest and straightforward. If there are specific concerns surrounding performance and attendance, address these at an early stage. When addressing the subject, be careful not to take a punitive approach.
  • Ensure confidentiality by discussing what details they would like to share and with whom. Keep in mind they are trusting you with sensitive information.
  • Encourage them to seek advice and support. If your organization has an Employee Assistance Program, provide information and direction on accessing the services.

Making accommodations

When an employee shares a mental health concern, take an empathetic, nonjudgmental approach. Practice active listening by repeating back or rephrasing what they told you, asking questions, and seeking clarification. Respond supportively by acknowledging their difficulty, reassuring them, and suggesting a potential accommodation, “thank you for telling me this. I know it can feel nerve-wracking and vulnerable to bring this up to a manager. Please know this won’t jeopardize your position and that I want to support you as best I can. How would you feel about [specific accommodation]?” Be sure you’re able to fulfill your proposed solution, and if you aren’t able to deliver a specific accommodation, brainstorm other ways to meet their needs. For example, an employee may not be able to work from home full time. Can you provide a quieter space for them to work? Can they be present for meetings and then work from home? Is a flexible schedule an option?

Supporting your employees’ mental health doesn’t just send a strong message about your organization’s values. It demonstrates your commitment to ensuring each individual receives tools to thrive, cultivating integrity and trust, critical drivers of loyalty and engagement. By pushing for a culture shift and prioritizing employee well-being, you help equip everyone to succeed!

Morgen Abbas is the Digital Media and Communications Specialist for Employee and Family Resources (EFR). Check out more blogs by EFR here: