Worldwide, one in four people will be affected by a mental or neurological disorder at some point in their lives—and for the nearly 450 million people currently suffering, the workplace can feel like a minefield. Many employees are wary about sharing their mental health issues out of fear they’ll be judged or criticized, says Michele Hellebuyck, a program manager at advocacy group Mental Health America (MHA).
In fact, MHA’s 2017 Workplace Health Survey found that only a third of all employees felt like they could turn to their supervisor or colleagues for support. “Proper workplace conduct is to be professional and to not talk or complain about problems—but there is a difference between complaining about problems and finding the right solutions and skills,” adds Dr. Jeffrey P. Kahn, psychiatrist and author of Mental Health and Productivity in the Workplace: A Handbook for Organizations and Clinicians.
With the right leadership, the workplace can provide a system of support that promotes well-being and success for all employees. When a corporate culture fosters open communication and engagement, team leaders and managers can get a sense of what is going on with their coworkers and offer the appropriate assistance.
The key is to learn how to recognize symptoms of mental illness so you can provide the necessary resources to help employees manage mental health challenges. According to the American Psychiatric Association, signs that an employee may need mental health support include:
- Inconsistent behavior or a drop in productivity
- Inability to concentrate
- Social isolation
- Moodiness or a heightened emotional response
- Physical aches and pains
- Nervousness or anxiety
An employee who exhibits one or two of these behaviors doesn’t necessarily have a mental health problem, but can still benefit from some extra support. If possible, you may want to first contact your human resources department to learn about any organizational protocols you need to follow, and then reach out.
How to Help:
Lend an Ear
Meet with the individual you’re worried about one-on-one and say something like, “You don’t have to share details, but you’ve seemed off so I just wanted to check in with you. Is there anything I can do?” Or, “I’ve noticed that you’ve been turning up late to work. Is there something going on that I can help you with?” Then, listen thoughtfully, be responsive and engaged, and continue to check-in with them in the days and weeks to come.
Provide Information—and Support
Maintain a shareable stockpile of relevant brochures, phone numbers, insurance information, the names of support groups, and so on. Make it easy for your employees to reach out for professional support and set aside time for them to pursue it.
In the Workplace Health Survey mentioned above, employees reported that workplaces with flexible work arrangements, open communication, and opportunities for professional growth were healthier and less stressful. Healthier workplaces also experienced lower levels of absenteeism and high levels of engagement and productivity. Consider implementing flexible work policies, when possible, and remember—what is good for your employees is often better for your bottom line.
Share your Story
If appropriate, you may decide to share your own experience. Maybe you’ll mention the time you saw a counselor to manage your stress, or how you coped with depression or dealt with a stressful situation at work. You don’t need to reveal every detail of your personal story to connect and engage with your employees, but sharing a little of your story (while respecting professional boundaries) may normalize their experience and help them feel less alone.
Businesses should also be open to larger scale evaluations, says Kahn. He has worked with corporations to implement computerized feedback systems and anonymous focus groups so leaders can hear firsthand about what’s helping and what’s hindering their employees when it comes to mental health issues. With this knowledge in hand, leaders can then customize a program with employee-focused solutions that are also good for business.
“It is important to remember that finding the right psychiatrist, the right diagnosis, and the right treatment can help people get better,” Kahn says. An astute manager who knows what to look for can help employees make that happen.