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How Leaders Can Support Mental Health In The Workplace

Jay Friedman is a partner and the president of Goodway Group.

Prior to the start of the pandemic, mental health was a topic that floated quietly under many leaders’ radars. Fast forward to 2020, and mental health in the workplace (virtual or otherwise) was thrown to the forefront of every company’s agenda.

In the past two years, companies have taken a firm stance on the correlation between mental health and work, with the vast majority encouraging employees to acknowledge the impact work-related stressors have on them mentally and offering praise when they are vocal about challenges they might be facing.

At my own company, a digital marketing firm, we’ve integrated a mental health offering into our benefits that provides free therapy to our employees and their families. Our leadership team no longer dances around mental health and instead directly communicates about it to our team. Through this experience, I’ve learned that acknowledging employees’ mental health challenges or rolling out initiatives like mental health days allows business leaders to let employees know they are listening. But it’s only one part of the equation.

Why Acknowledgement Is Only The Beginning

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Research shared in Harvard Business Review found that 76% of respondents “reported at least one symptom of a mental health condition” in 2021. Not to be obvious, but in a 50-person company, that’s 38 people who are affected. Imagine if the same percentage of people had chest or foot pain and how many meetings would be had to solve this problem. Starting the conversation is an important first step, but I don’t believe this is enough.

Let’s carry the foot pain thought experiment further. Imagine someone walks into their workplace and says they are dealing with severe foot pain. Then, their boss congratulates the employee for recognizing there is an issue and leaves it at that. While managers might believe this response is positive, from the employee’s perspective, it is cavalier and, depending on the situation, could come across as tone-deaf.

It’s not up to the workplace to recommend a course of treatment for any condition, be it mental or physical. However, when someone is suffering, I believe leaders should ask whether the employee has a plan to improve their situation. Normalizing mental health in the workplace requires leaders to demonstrate the same level of concern and support for their team’s mental and physical health. When employees speak up, they shouldn’t simply be given words of support and then left to resolve their issues independently. Moving forward, leaders must approach conversations about mental health with compassion and empathy. From my perspective, neither is possible if support ends at simply acknowledging these challenges exist.

Bridging The Gap Between Understanding And Action

Now, to be fair, most managers are not mental health experts, but they can connect employees with the resources to learn about and manage their mental health. To help eliminate the stigma around mental health, business leaders must embrace their role as a bridge between acknowledgment and education. Here are three strategies leaders can implement to truly support employees’ mental health at work.

Take a peek under the surface. When employees bring their mental health challenges to your attention, dig deeper to identify any work-related factors that could be contributing. This doesn’t mean taking on the role of therapist. Instead, employers should draw clear lines between where the role of “boss” and “therapist” begin and end to tactfully inquire about their employees’ well-being and gain clarity into their plans for coping.

For example, at face value, you might think an employee who says they are anxious is just that: anxious. However, when you inquire further, you might learn their anxiety is related to workplace stressors. In my company, we’ve employed pulse surveys to get a real-time reading of how our employees are doing and where we can lean in to bolster support. Engaging with employees more deeply encourages them to seek solutions and provides insight into how you can better support them, whether that is making changes to your office and culture or addressing foundational flaws within your organization that fuel these problems.

Recommend educational resources. Awareness is a critical factor in employees’ ability to manage their mental health, from recognizing they are stressed or burned out to understanding where they can seek help. Employers are already making strides in getting employees talking about their mental health. Now, we have to shift focus to connecting employees with educational resources. This includes providing in-house wellness programs, factsheets, research and information on different conditions; contact information for mental health professionals and helplines; and programs where experts offer insight into strategies for managing mental health.

Provide access to tools and programs. The final component to round out your strategy for supporting employees’ mental health is continuing to offer wellness initiatives and programs that empower employees to take charge of their mental health. Through benefits geared toward positive mental health—such as mental health app subscriptions, yoga or meditation classes, therapy memberships and employee resource groups that connect employees with others who have been in their shoes—leaders can ensure their employees receive 360-degree support on their mental health journey.

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To successfully embrace mental health in the workplace, it’s imperative that leaders make it OK to recommend reading, resources and programs, as well as encourage employees to find the right solutions for managing their mental health struggles. As leaders, that begins by proactively working to destigmatize mental health. One of the most meaningful steps we can take toward this goal is to stop celebrating acknowledgment alone.

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