How to help employees who may be dealing with issues like depression or anxiety

May 11, 2021, 10:00 PM UTC

We’re all stressed out, and we know it. The biggest difference at this stage of the pandemic is that we’re more willing to talk about it. 

“The pandemic was a very challenging time for everyone globally, but it allowed us to open up a new dialogue around mental and behavioral health,” said Omar Dawood, chief medical officer at Calm. One clear sign of that: An increasing number of companies are offering access to services like Calm as an employment benefit. 

The pandemic highlighted a need for companies to provide employees with the tools to deal with stress, anxiety, and constant upheaval—real life things that often affect the way people work. Professional colleagues tend to be particularly well-placed to intervene because changing job performance can be among the earliest signs of depression, anxiety and burnout. 

Know how depression, anxiety and burnout surface at work 

“I didn’t know I was burnt out until my therapist told me I was burnt out,” said Dr. Jessi Gold, a professor at the School of Medicine at Washington University in St. Louis. “One of the hardest things is actually recognizing signs and symptoms that anything is wrong.”

Those signs can include seeming more distanced than usual, being consistently late, or regularly missing meetings.

Gold specializes in the mental health of college students and the wellness of physicians. Looking back, she recognizes the emotional exhaustion, casual callousness, and irritability she was experiencing. Some things are just easier for other people to see, especially when you’re in the depths of it. 

“People tend not to seek help until they absolutely need it. This is especially true in America,” Gold said. “We don’t like to use words like burnout or depression. We just keep going because we think that we’re supposed to, but it’s not wrong or weak to ask for what you need.” 

Know what you can and cannot do

Chances are you’re not a trained psychologist or psychiatrist. So it’s a safe bet to say you shouldn’t be attempting to Google diagnose or WebMD treat your team members. 

But you should be supportive and speak up when your concern warrants it, and know when and how to refer your team for help. If an employee is showing signs they may hurt themselves or others, seek emergency assistance.

Legally, an employer cannot fire someone, pass them over for a promotion, harass them, or force them to take leave because of a mental health condition. Employees have a right to privacy and are not required to tell bosses about mental health conditions. 

If an employee discloses a mental health condition that may impact their work, the first thing a manager needs to do is figure what, if any, accommodations need to be made to allow the person to do the job they were hired to do. Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations—things like regular breaks, remote work arrangements, or working around therapy appointments.

It’s okay to let employees ask for what they need and to accommodate those requests, but don’t scale back responsibilities or change performance metrics without talking with the employee and your company’s human resources department.  

Choose your words —and your email send times—carefully

As a manager, one of the best things you can do for your employees’ mental health is to help them develop and stick to predictable routines. Don’t be the boss that makes it impossible to break for lunch or get a good night’s sleep.

“The biggest tool you have at your disposal is the draft folder in your email,” Dawood said. By scheduling non-urgent emails for regular working hours, you show that you respect your team’s boundaries and personal time. 

One of the worst things you can do, on the other hand, is send a cryptic message along the lines of “Do you have a minute?” While your intent may be benign, there are a myriad of ways your recipient could misinterpret the statement and begin down a spiral of anxiety.

Be vulnerable—within your boundaries 

Sometimes the most powerful thing a manager can do is be open about their own experiences. “When you’re able to exhibit vulnerability as a leader, you normalize it for every other employee in the company,” Dawood said. 

That doesn’t mean you have to spill your entire health history at the Monday meeting or in a company newsletter. This can be as simple as sharing a life experience or the personal journey that shows you get it. “There are times when it can be really powerful for someone to speak the truth,” Gold said. “So people don’t think they’re alone.” 

The people who shared their own mental health challenges with her are the ones who were most supportive when Gold was experiencing burnout. “They were the ones who made me feel like I could tell them if I needed help.” 

Therapy is a priority for Gold, something she discusses openly. Showing employees that taking the time they may need for treatment and recovery doesn’t have to come at a professional cost can be a powerful tool, she said. 

Cultivate a supportive work environment

One common reason people are reluctant to prioritize their mental health is fear over how their condition or treatment could affect their job. Couple that with the challenges of navigating health insurance benefits and employee assistance programs, and you’ve got some formidable obstacles.

As a manager, taking time off, setting reasonable work hours for yourself, and carving out midday exercise or therapy breaks is a way for you to show your team it really is okay to do the same. 

You don’t have to become an expert on your company’s benefits, but being able to help your team navigate their options could save them a lot of unnecessary frustration. 

Sometimes, there’s value in simply giving people space to talk. Dawood recommends managers hold regular meetings to check-in with individual employees. These meetings can create space for conversations around mental and behavioral health and offer an opportunity for managers to show concern for a person’s well being. 

“We expect employees to be able to deal with stress and anxiety,” Dawood said. “The reality is we need to prepare them for it.” 

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