As a manager, being responsible for looking after your team means inevitably having to support staff through tough times. One in five New Zealanders over the age of 18 will be diagnosed with a form of mental illness in their lives. Inevitably, many of those people will have jobs, yet many leaders don’t know what they need to do when a staff member talks to them about their mental health.
What’s expected of people leaders when your staff are experiencing a mental illness? What responsibilities does the workplace have? And how do you help someone who’s working their way back from a period of poor mental health?
It’s a difficult situation to work through. Plainly, all instances will have their own specific circumstances to take into account, but these are some of the common scenarios managers may be faced with and a guide to how you might respond.
1. An employee comes to you raising mental health concerns
“I’m feeling really stressed or anxious”
“I’ve been feeling quite depressed lately”
“I’m really struggling with my mental health”
“I have thoughts that I don’t want to keep going anymore”
As a manager, it can be really hard hearing these kinds of things from your team members.
Other times, people leaders notice a team member becoming withdrawn, struggling with their work performance, having emotional outbursts or taking repeated and unexplained sick leave.
When dealing with a mental health concern from a team member, the first thing to do is to have an open conversation with the person. Do this in a private and non-intimidating environment. Some people find it easier to talk while doing something, like going for a walk.
Without making assumptions, ask what’s going on for them and what supports they already have in place. Reassure them that they are not alone, these difficulties are common and people recover over time.
If a person is at immediate risk of harm, you should always contact emergency services immediately. Free 24/7 phone counselling is available on 1737 in New Zealand or 13 11 14 in Australia.
Close family and friends are key. It’s important to encourage the person to draw on their social support networks if they are not already doing so. In times of mental distress, this is one of the biggest factors that influence the outcome. The risk of worsening depression or other negative outcomes is far greater when people don’t have good social support structures in place.
Ask about the support they have from family and friends, and encourage them to be open with them. If they don’t feel they have any close support people, ask them about other people they might be able to lean on. It really does make a difference.
Getting a proper medical assessment from a GP is worth recommending too. This can help to determine whether their difficulties are mental health-related, or are being caused by something else. For instance, low iron is fairly common and can look like depression, only for the low mood to disappear once iron levels go back up. Even when the difficulties are mental health-related, a GP can help identify factors, such as lifestyle aspects that contribute to, or exacerbate, how someone is feeling.
You should also encourage them to see a therapist. Research indicates those with mild-moderate distress tend to need between 6-12 sessions of an evidence-based treatment like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). Those who are severely unwell usually take around 16 sessions to be treated properly, and often require medication as well.
If your workplace has an EAP programme like Clearhead, it’s a good idea to encourage the person to access it. You can even help them make a booking online with the therapist.
Too often, therapy is seen as a last resort; something for people who are in severe distress. But this attitude isn’t helpful. People experiencing mental health challenges of all shapes and sizes can benefit from therapy, including those that are not struggling with their mental health but are looking for skills to develop their emotional intelligence and thrive both at home and at work.
Be prepared that mental distress often involves time away from work. While that will undoubtedly be inconvenient from a work perspective, it’s critical you put their wellbeing first just as you would if the person was physically unwell. In any case, chances are it’ll be more inconvenient if they aren’t supported enough to recover and come back to work and be at their best.
Questions you should ask:
- Would you like help arranging to see a mental health professional to help you with your specific challenge via our EAP (Clearhead) or a doctor?
- What other support would you like from the workplace while you recover?
- Have you spoken to your friends and family about this? It would be good for them to know that you are going through this and provide you extra support.
Remember, it’s not your responsibility to solve their problems for them. It’s important for your own mental health that you set clear boundaries with your employee - you want to be aware when their mental health is affecting them and to be empathetic and accommodating around that at work. However, talking through their specific problems is best done with a mental health professional who can provide them with the clinical insight and tools to self-manage their mental wellbeing moving forward.
2. An employee has been through a mental health challenge and is returning to work
One of the big questions managers face is how they support a staff member to return to “normal” after a period of being unwell.
Anecdotally, managers often grapple with how much attention and support they should give to a returning staff member. You want to treat them as normally as possible, but you also want to be careful to ease them into things, not have expectations that are too high, and certainly avoid contributing to any relapse. A full recovery can be expected, but it can take time.
Have open, honest conversations with the staff member about an appropriate work response. This can include a partial sickness absence or adjusted duties while they work their way back to full health. In all likelihood, there will be a period of readjustment where things are different to normal.
If they’re off work for a time, a return to work programme helps to guide the path back. You can put one together and ideally alongside the employee’s therapist that they can access through your work’s EAP provider, like Clearhead. The return to work assessment should be done by a different psychologist to remove the blurring of professional duties and ensure the employee will continue to have a professional support system regardless of the assessment.
The return to work plan should be customised according to their individual needs and sense-checked by the therapist that’s been working with them, who will be able to provide their input based on their understanding of the employee’s needs and progress. These plans can look very similar to return to work plans after a physical injury.
As a manager, the best thing you can do is ensure the staff member is supported as much as possible. Make it known that their wellbeing is the priority, and work outcomes aren’t more important than their own health. The attitude within the workplace needs to genuinely reflect this; you can’t manufacture this kind of support if it’s not actually there.
Remember, there’s nothing to suggest that people who experience mental illness are less effective as employees. It may sound obvious, but the more support they have in their recovery, the better health outcomes people tend to have.
Questions to ask:
- How can we support your wellbeing while you readjust to being back at work (i.e. more working from home or flexible hours)?
- What is a good workload for you right now?
- How would you like to communicate adjustments or time off to the team?
Work conditions are contributing to a staff member’s distress
If an employee identifies work as a factor that has contributed to their mental health challenges, it’s important you take action.
In the first instance, document the issue with the staff member carefully. Psychological injuries or harm that have occurred at work are health and safety incidents and should be treated accordingly. Under health and safety legislation, workplaces are required to address work-related hazards, and employees are entitled to pursue this legally for settlement if they wish.
It’s also important to understand if the workplace has any systemic or cultural issue that has contributed to the mental wellbeing issue of the staff member. Things like bullying, harassment, a lack of autonomy or a culture of overloading staff are all issues that need to be addressed on a wider scale.
Even if the employee doesn’t say the workplace has contributed to their distress, it’s worth making sure for yourself. It may be that they don’t want to complain or be seen to cause problems, so even if they say it’s not a work issue, there’s no guarantee that’s the case.
At the very least, it’s a chance to check in to make sure your systems and culture are psychologically safe for all staff. This is actually the most impactful time to enable mental wellbeing in your workplace: the idea of intervening when someone is unwell gets a lot of attention, but it’s actually one of the lowest impact places to focus your attention.
In order to create real change and promote mental wellbeing across your organisation, you need to consider mental health and resilience strategies across all levels of the workplace.
Question to ask the employee:
- Is there anything at work that is contributing to how you’re feeling?
Questions leadership/management needs to ask themselves:
- Are we a safe, open workplace that supports people to talk about their mental health?
- Do we have mental health and resilience strategies across all levels of the business?
- Do we have systems in place that we can confidently refer to support our people who need it?
4. Becoming a psychologically safe workplace
No workplace is immune to staff having mental health challenges, whether work is the cause or not. The key is to have an open culture where people can talk about the issues they’re experiencing so they can be addressed before they become severe.
This is the best way workplaces reduce the impact of mental illness; by having systems and processes to deal with it early. Trying to totally prevent mental illness is doomed to fail.
Research from the National Mental Health Commission and the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance in Australia summarised a range of workplace mental health strategies and assessed the strength of evidence for different approaches. This shines a light on what works, but perhaps just as significantly, what doesn’t.
Designing and managing work to minimise harm
Promoting protective factors at an organisational level to maximise resilience
Enhancing personal resilience
Promoting and facilitating early help-seeking
Supporting workers recovery from mental illness and during stressful life events
Increasing awareness of mental illness and reducing stigma
Levels of evidence and definition
Good body of evidence to guide practice. High or moderate quality systematic reviews/meta-analyses demonstrating consistent results from multiple randomised controlled trial (RCTs) and consistent evidence from a body of well-designed observational studies.
Some research evidence to guide practice. High or moderate quality systematic reviews/meta-analyses demonstrating consistent evidence from non-RCT intervention trials or less consistent evidence from RCTs on top
of consistent evidence from a body of well-designed observational studies.
Limited research evidence. Mixed or inconclusive evidence from research literature. Interventions supported by good observational evidence but interventional studies lacking.
Research evidence unknown. Inconclusive research evidence at present, but some theoretical support.
Good research evidence supporting that the strategy is not effective. Conclusive evidence from good quality research and multiple RCTs that this approach is not effective and should not be implemented in the workplace.
Mental health in the workplace can be incredibly complex, and it’s a huge ask to expect managers to be able to deal with it without proper training.
The first step is creating a culture where mental wellbeing is approached proactively, not reactively. This allows people to build resilience and build up their mental health toolkit in a way that prevents them from reaching crisis point.
Secondly, people need to be able to talk about the difficulties they are experiencing. This can also be viewed through a proactive lens, where having an open, non-judgemental environment means people feel safe talking about mental illness.
By fostering a culture that embraces a growth mindset, this can reduce stigma and stereotyping. This leads to a more psychologically safe workplace where staff feel safe to be open about mental health challenges. When your workplace normalises the fact everyone goes through challenging situations, you make it much easier for people to seek help.
From a manager’s perspective, having access to appropriate tools and resources and professional mental health support that they can refer their employees to is so important. Like anyone, managers shouldn’t be expected to handle the potentially serious implications of someone else’s mental distress without being properly equipped.
Training managers to support employees who are experiencing mental health concerns is a critical part of a workplace’s mental health strategy. Often, the first step a staff member will take in addressing their mental health at work is to talk to their manager, and managers are key in helping people through tough times.
For any workplace looking to be psychologically safe and care for its people, giving managers the tools to assist their teams is an absolute must.
To find out more about how Clearhead can support mental wellbeing in your workplace and help your people to thrive, book a free demo today.
For more information, see some of the leading research into psychological safety at work: