More managers are taking on an unfamiliar role—and so should you. Here are tips for helping colleagues with their mental health

April 25, 2023, 11:30 AM UTC
A businesswoman meditates while working.
As companies devote more attention to their mental health benefits strategies, managers are taking on an increasingly important new role: They’re learning how to integrate attention to employees’ mental well-being into their leadership.
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From the moment Venice Bautista sat down for a job interview at Watkins Wellness, a California-based hot tub manufacturing company, she noticed something different: Her interviewers and future supervisors made it clear that if she joined the company, her mental health would be as important to the company as her physical health. 

This mindset was new to Bautista. In previous jobs, she says, she felt overworked and burned out. The workload and commute took her away from her family, making her feel guilty and exacerbating the strain on her mental health. 

Bautista, who lives in Temecula, Calif., was hired at Watkins as an accounts payable employee. Now, she says, her boss helps her achieve the right work-life balance that allows her to be present with her family. During performance reviews and monthly meetings, he takes time to ask how she is doing personally. If she works a lot of overtime, he will ask her about her workload. In addition to benefits like the counseling that Watkins offers through its human resources department, Bautista’s boss encourages her to take time off for her mental health. (Watkins Wellness did not respond to requests for an interview.)

“I never had those kinds of conversations with my previous employers,” Bautista said. “It’s like a breath of fresh air.” 

Bautista’s experience shows how integral managers can be in supporting employees’ mental health. Indeed, as companies devote more attention to their mental health benefits strategies, supervisors and managers are taking on an increasingly important new role: They’re learning how to integrate attention to employees’ mental well-being into their leadership. 

The pandemic has prompted a major push to dedicate more attention to supporting employees’ mental health. For many companies, this is new territory—so much so that the data tracking mental health offerings and employee participation from industry leaders like Kaiser Family Foundation and Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) only tracks back as far as 2021. But according to SHRM’s 2022 Mental Health Workplace Benefits Report, 88% of HR professionals believe that offering mental health benefits can boost productivity, and 86% think that it helps with employee retention. 

Wendi Safstrom, president of SHRM, said it is not enough for companies just to offer benefits. Management needs to be a part of communicating the availability of those benefits, and creating a culture that makes people comfortable with taking advantage of them. 

“Leaders need to step up and take ownership of the fact that it’s okay” to experience mental health issues, Safstrom said. “That’s why we have these benefits in place. We recognize and understand you all have been through things in particular in the last couple of years, and your health is important to us.”

As more companies put mental health strategies in place, a few common best practices are emerging across industries. Here’s how managers and executives in any company can be proponents of mental health. 

Be mindful of your colleagues  

Helping promote mental health within your company takes intentionality. Not all managers work face-to-face with their employees every day. But colleagues can look out for one another and take note of marked differences in behavior that might indicate something outside of work is impacting them. 

“From the very top, I would encourage people, managers, and colleagues…just to be mindful of the people around them,” Safstrom said. “It’s just being a human and being kind.” 

She also said that managers or colleagues who notice a coworker’s struggles can consult with their company’s human resources department for guidance on when it is appropriate to call for a check-in. 

The check-in: Make the time to talk with no distractions 

The idea of a personal “check-in” can feel a bit “squishy” or “hokey,” said Safstrom. But really, it is simply carving out time to ask the open-ended question: “How are things going?”

Britt Lui, board member of the National HR Association and vice president, human resources at Depaul, an upstate New York housing management company, said that giving employees a dedicated 15 minutes with no distractions can go a long way in showing them you care. Making the meeting short can also help the employees stick to the most relevant problems, rather than creating a forum where all their complaints about their job unspool. 

These meetings can help bosses get a fuller understanding of what their employee is experiencing, which also serves the purpose of having smoother conversations around performance later on, said Lui. However, if an employee reveals that they are having issues in their personal life, it is best to wait for a later date to talk about their work performance. 

Lui advises managers to use simple engagement tactics, like turning their body toward the person, nodding along with what they’re saying, and paraphrasing to show understanding. All of these approaches can make a person feel seen and heard. In conversations involving remote employees, Lui says that managers can signal that their employees have their full attention by keeping their faces turned toward the camera, and by putting their hands in view. 

Walk through the benefits and emphasize confidentiality

Taking advantage of a company’s mental health benefits usually means moving on to a conversation with HR. But that transition can be a tricky one. Many employees fear their conversations with HR won’t be confidential, Lui explained, and that fear is one of the most common deterrents for people going to ask for help. 

During check-ins, managers can help quell those worries by reassuring employees that conversations with HR about benefits are confidential. While managers may inform their reports and colleagues about mental health offerings, employees are not under any obligation to share what resources they want to use with their manager. Even conversations with managers about mental health and personal details should be discreet, Lui said. 

Once a manager learns about an employee’s mental health concerns, they can also remind the employee of external resources that are a part of their benefits package, said Lui.

Those resources, such as employee assistance programs (EAP), mental health providers, or mental health apps, offer what amounts to an additional layer of confidentiality: The identities of employees who use those benefits are not reported back to managers or to the HR department.

Allow employees to make their own decisions 

While managers and colleagues may notice some issues among their reports, it is important not to overstep, said Lui. 

“I also coach supervisors not to be accusatory,” he said. “It’s not our job to diagnose somebody or to accuse them of having a physical or mental health issue,” he said. 

Lui said that it is important for managers to make employees aware of benefits, but that they shouldn’t push employees to use them. While it may seem best that someone experiencing stress takes a mental health day, for example, doing so could compound the employee’s mental health problems.

Ultimately, managers should trust employees to choose from the options available to them. 

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