Tips for Managing Mental Health Conversations with Struggling Employees

employees having conversation

More than 20% of American adults experienced a mental illness in 2019, but only 44.8% of those people received treatment.

What does that mean for your workplace? That there are likely multiple employees who are struggling right now.

The first step is to start a conversation -- but that’s easier said than done. Mental health issues are personal and sometimes really difficult to talk about, especially to someone’s employer. But by approaching the situation carefully and earnestly, you can start a conversation with struggling employees that leads to a positive outcome.

Here are some tips for navigating mental health conversations in the workplace.

Change the way your employees think about mental health

Although our society has come a long way in welcoming mental health conversations, there’s still a stigma surrounding it, especially in the workplace. Fear and shame may very well be holding people back from engaging in conversations about their struggles.

While employers can’t force anyone to speak about their situations, they can change the way employees think about mental health. Company leaders should take a proactive role in eliminating the stigma by setting an example.

One way to change how mental health is discussed in the workplace is to speak about health holistically. It’s normalized to discuss physical illness and injury, so including mental health in a broader health conversation normalizes it as well. For example, if someone is recovering from a back injury, you can approach the topic by saying something along the lines of “I’m glad your back is feeling better. That must have been a really stressful injury to deal with; how are your stress levels now?”

Changing the way mental health is viewed in the workplace is the first step in encouraging struggling employees to speak up.

Encourage mental health conversations

Once the view on mental health has shifted, you can start encouraging meaningful conversations.

If you are willing, share your own struggles or tactics for improving your mental health. This boosts your employees’ confidence and normalizes the topic, opening the door for further conversation.

Case in point - Biotech firm Roche Genentech held a campaign called “LetsTalk” to build awareness for mental health and encourage company-wide conversation. As part of the campaign, senior leaders recorded videos talking about their mental health experiences. A network of trained employees were then asked to make videos sharing their experiences, further extending the conversation.

Encouraging conversations can also happen on a smaller, individual scale. Given the turmoil the COVID-19 pandemic has caused, it’s a good idea for managers to reach out individually to check in on their employees. Go beyond a simple “are you okay?” to ask specific (yet non-invasive) questions. Examples include:

  • How is remote learning going for your children? Has it changed your at-home routine?
  • Is your current work schedule allowing you enough time to care for any sick or dependent family members right now?
  • What concerns do you have about returning to the office?
  • What can I take off your plate?
  • What would be most helpful to you right now?

Be sure to approach these conversations carefully -- don’t try to “fix” the issue or downplay any situations; instead, encourage them to speak about it whether it be to you, to someone else in the company or to a mental health professional.

Provide mental health support in the workplace and beyond

In a study by the Harvard Business Review in partnership with Qualtrics and SAP, almost 46% of workers said their company had not proactively shared available mental health resources and encouraged them to use them.

Be as generous as possible when it comes to mental health support in the workplace, within reason. Some important questions to ask yourself in regards to your offerings:

  • Does my healthcare package include mental health? What about my telehealth options?
  • Is there room in our schedule to host a mental health or stress reduction workshop?
  • Are employees satisfied with their work arrangement, managers’ styles and company culture?

The answers to these questions will help create more support within the workplace. But employers cannot make the mistake of assuming that everyone knows the resources available to them. Make sure you are not only creating a benefits package that addresses mental health needs, but that you’re also communicating options to everyone.

Furthermore, employers should take their benefits packages one step further to help address mental health needs that stem from outside of the workplace. There needs to be inclusivity and flexibility that allows everyone to meet their own specific needs. This could look like:

  • Childcare or Dependent Care assistance
  • Financial guidance or HSAs/FSAs to ease money-related stress
  • Access to quality exercise equipment/classes, yoga and/or meditation

All of these things address serious sources of stress outside the workplace that impact mental health.

The most important thing to do here is to keep an open line of communication with employees. Needs will differ from person to person and change over time, and you won’t know what those needs are until you ask. Start a conversation, keep that conversation going and make sure employees know that you are not just here to make their workplace experience better -- but their overall wellbeing.