How to talk about mental health with your employees

344

We’re living and working in an unprecedented time. And change isn’t always easy. Our lives are full of new stresses and concerns while we’re navigating how to shift to remote offices, defining essential workers and even closing our doors.

Conversations between employers and their teams have become more candid — we hear the background noise of children, spouses and pets that were previously managed separately — and we’re struggling to stay productive in a time when our home may have become our office. For others, they’re leaving the safety of their home behind as they continue to dedicate themselves to caring for others — in grocery stores, banking, health care and more.

Mental health has become a leading headline as we struggle to adapt to our current world. Before this pandemic, roughly 1 in 4 people were diagnosed with a mental illness worldwide — including anxiety and depression. According to the World Health Organization, around 450 million people suffered from mental health conditions in late 2019, placing mental disorders as a leader in causes of illness and disability. Since then, COVID-19 has rocked our world and mental illness is on the rise.

Employee assistance plans (EAPs) and company wellness initiatives may have offered dedicated space for employee support and treatment before the pandemic. But now, with the volume of employees feeling the pressures of balancing work with homeschooling, creating a functional home office, mastering new technology for video conferencing and a lack of clear separation from work and home life — employers may be the first call for help. In a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” world, there’s still great stigma around mental illness and seeking treatment. But since this crushing pandemic, a different approach must be taken to retain and engage our teams.

Taking an informed and compassionate approach to discussing mental health is the best way to initiate support. Here are some straightforward ways that employers can deliver:

  • Call it out: Assume that all team members are struggling in some capacity. Forced change is not the way all humans were designed to thrive, and you likely have employees who are desperate for support. In an April 2020 article from The Centers for Disease Control, the following challenges were outlined as common experiences related to mental health: Fear and worry about your own health and the health of your loved ones, changes in sleep or eating patterns, difficulty sleeping or concentrating, worsening of chronic physical and mental health problems, and increased use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs.
    • Send a message to all staff to share your awareness of these challenges and that they may be impacting the way people work. Consider sharing some of your experiences to personalize the message you’re delivering to your teams.
    • Key phrases:
      • “I/we understand that this is stressful.”
      • “We value mental health as a critical piece of employee wellness.”
      • “We want to support you while we’re navigating this new way of living and working.”
  • Be prepared: You may learn about past mental illness symptoms or an onset of a new diagnosis when connecting with your team, and it’s important to respond appropriately.
    • Practice active listening without judgment. Hear what they’re communicating about the way they’re being impacted and pause before giving advice.
    • Ask “How can I best support you?” instead of assuming that you know what they’re looking for. Be honest that you may not have a solution, but you can help find one together.
    • Recognize that mental health challenges may be exacerbated by financial stresses, sick family members, child care issues, access to food and other basic needs.
    • If an employee expresses that their symptoms are unmanageable, recommend that they connect with their physician. Use caution to not be dismissive when directing this type of intervention but remind them that there are times when a physician should be involved. Many health care agencies are now offering virtual health visits, making an appointment with medical staff accessible while social distancing.
    • Key phrases:
      • “Tell me what’s going on.”
      • “How can I support you?”
      • “I hear what you’re saying.”
  • Share tools: Send information frequently and generously that allows employees to learn about managing their mental health symptoms.
    • If you have an employee assistance plan (EAP), request webinars, articles and information that employees can access from home.
    • Send emails that guide teams to the EAP website and phone number(s). If you don’t have an EAP, consider investing in a mental health partner that can provide your employees with essential resources and support.
    • Key phrases:
      • “I/we recognize that this is new and can be difficult. We have resources available to help.”
      • “We have a webinar scheduled to address that very issue; I hope you’ll attend.”
  • Offer flexibility: Creative problem-solving can offer great relief to employees seeking support. Even mentioning flexibility as an option can be a helpful reminder. When tasks and deadlines are unable to be flexed, explore options for other projects and tasks that can be shifted to accommodate employee needs.
    • Key phrases:
      • “What kind of flexibility would be helpful?”
      • “We aren’t able to shift the expectations on this project, but maybe we can make changes to some of the other tasks you’ve mentioned.”
  • Check-in: Set a schedule to connect with employees on their mental health and well-being. Don’t assume that because one message was sent that the work here is done. As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, so does new worry and stress. Consider creating a team check-in at regular intervals. Offer confidentiality and anonymity when team members need more support.
    • Key phrases:
      • “How’s your mental health today?”
      • “How have you been balancing work and home this week?”
      • “What’s your stress level been like?”
  • Know your limits: Employers are not trained mental health professionals for their staff. Your role is to listen and guide your workforce toward resources while they’re surviving and working in a pandemic. If a team member indicates a need for serious mental health interventions, calmly and confidently direct them to contact their physician or a local mental health emergency provider.

Despite the adjustments we’ve been forced to make, we are a resilient community. By discussing mental health symptoms as a normal part of this experience, we build stronger connections. We can do this, Grand Rapids. Together.

Additional resources:

  • The National Suicide Prevention Line (1-800-273-TALK)
  • Pine Rest Psychiatric Urgent Care: 1-800-678-5500
  • network180: (616) 336-3535

Facebook Comments