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8 Ways Managers Can Support Employees’ Mental Health


Aug. 7, 2020 Harvard Business Review

And that’s taking a toll on our mental health, including at work.

We saw an impact early in the pandemic. At the end of March and in early April, our nonprofit organization, Mind Share Partners, conducted a study of global employees in partnership with Qualtrics and SAP. We found that the mental health of almost 42% of respondents had declined since the outbreak began. Given all that’s happened between then and now, we can only imagine that the figure has increased. Much has been said about this short-term mental health impact, and the long-term effects are likely to be even more far-reaching.

Prior to the pandemic, many companies had increased their focus on workplace mental health (often in response to pressure from employees). Those efforts are even more imperative today.

As we navigate various transitions over the coming months and years, leaders are likely to see employees struggle with anxiety, depression, burnout, trauma, and PTSD. Those mental health experiences will differ according to race, economic opportunity, citizenship status, job type, parenting and caregiving responsibilities, and many other variables. So, what can managers and leaders do to support people as they face new stressors, safety concerns, and economic upheaval? Here’s our advice.

What Can Managers Do?

Even in the most uncertain of times, the role of a manager remains the same: to support your team members. That includes supporting their mental health. The good news is that many of the tools you need to do so are the same ones that make you an effective manager.

Be vulnerable. One silver lining of the pandemic is that it is normalizing mental health challenges. Almost everyone has experienced some level of discomfort. But the universality of the experience will translate into a decrease in stigma only if people, especially people in power, share their experiences. Being honest about your mental health struggles as a leader opens the door for employees to feel comfortable talking with you about mental health challenges of their own.

Prior to the pandemic, the biotech firm Roche Genentech produced videos in which senior leaders talked about their mental health. They were shared on the company intranet as part of a campaign called #Let’sTalk. The company then empowered “mental health champions” — a network of employees trained to help build awareness for mental health — to make videos about their experiences, which were used as part of the company’s various mental health awareness campaigns. (See the editor’s note below regarding our relationships with this company and others mentioned in this article.)

Those of us working from home have had no choice but to be transparent about our lives, whether our kids have crashed our video meetings or our coworkers have gotten glimpses of our homes. When managers describe their challenges, whether mental-health-related or not, it makes them appear human, relatable, and brave. Research has shown that authentic leadership can cultivate trust and improve employee engagement and performance.

Model healthy behaviors. Don’t just say you support mental health. Model it so that your team members feel they can prioritize self-care and set boundaries. More often than not, managers are so focused on their team’s well-being and on getting the work done that they forget to take care of themselves. Share that you’re taking a walk in the middle of the day, having a therapy appointment, or prioritizing a staycation (and actually turning off email) so that you don’t burn out.

Build a culture of connection through check-ins. Intentionally checking in with each of your direct reports on a regular basis is more critical than ever. That was important but often underutilized in pre-pandemic days. Now, with so many people working from home, it can be even harder to notice the signs that someone is struggling. In our study with Qualtrics and SAP, nearly 40% of global employees said that no one at their company had asked them if they were doing OK — and those respondents were 38% more likely than others to say that their mental health had declined since the outbreak.

Go beyond a simple “How are you?” and ask specific questions about what supports would be helpful. Wait for the full answer. Really listen, and encourage questions and concerns. Of course, be careful not to be overbearing; that could signal a lack of trust or a desire to micromanage.

When someone shares that they’re struggling, you won’t always know what to say or do. What’s most important is to make space to hear how your team members are truly doing and to be compassionate. They may not want to share much detail, which is completely fine. Knowing that they can is what matters.

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