Mental Health Awareness Month:
What Business Leaders Can Do to Help Struggling Employees
Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD
Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo is a Licensed Practicing Psychologist with a Ph.D. in Psychology and a Master's degree in Physical Therapy, and the authority on how to crush your inner critic so that you can live a life of purpose, fulfillment and True Success™. She’s America’s most trusted celebrity psychologist with over 100 national media interviews. She writes for Combined Insurance in an effort to help educate readers, but her medical opinions and advice are for entertainment purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for visiting your doctor.
According to the World Health Organization, mental health is “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and can contribute to her or his community.”
Health isn’t just physical. Because mental and physical well-being is intertwined, lacking one of the two has a serious negative impact on people’s lives, and in turn, on their work.
In the United States, the discussion about mental health has become more open in the last few years. The topic has gained traction in social media and online communities and has been promoted by people with large public platforms, such as celebrities and entrepreneurs.
While mental health is no longer the taboo it was decades ago, it can still be difficult to start conversations about it, especially in places like the workplace where many feel constantly evaluated based on performance and appearances.
For this reason, each May organizations like the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) raise awareness about mental health. The goal is to fight the stigma attached to mental illness and promote policies that benefit people with mental illness.
Despite the stigma still attached to it, mental illness is common in the United States.
In 2019, about 51 million adults over 18 years experienced any mental illness. From those, about 23 million received mental health services, and 13.1 million reported suffering from a severe mental illness.
While young adults 18-25 reported the highest prevalence (29.4%) of mental health conditions, older demographics are not far behind. 25% of adults aged 29-46 and 14.4% of people aged 50 and older also reported experiencing a mental health condition.
Anxiety disorders like Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, and phobias are the most common mental illnesses people experience. Other conditions include Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Major Depressive Disorder.
Each person experiences mental illness differently. The symptoms and severity present in diverse ways depending on the person’s life experiences, cultural and familial attitudes toward mental health, access to a support network of friends and family, and access to medical care, among many others.
Many people may exhibit mild symptoms that don’t disrupt their everyday life but still cause discomfort. For others, mental illness can debilitate, impairing their performance in all areas of their life, including work and their relationships with others.
In the office, a mental illness wreaks havoc on a person’s concentration, energy levels, communication, and enjoyment of work. In turn, productivity levels and the ability to function in a team decrease. For example, depression reduces a person’s ability to perform physical jobs 20% of the time and diminishes cognitive performance 35% of the time.
Mental illness cost US businesses between $80 billion and $100 billion in lost earnings each year.
Severe mental illness such as depression causes 400 million lost workdays each year and up to $193 billion in lost earnings per year.
These numbers need to be a motivation for companies and their management teams to keep improving the mental health resources and support they offer their organizations.
Adopting better mental health policies benefits companies in multiple ways. It doesn’t just benefit the company by improving productivity and reducing sick day leaves. It also attracts more talent and builds a positive work environment where people can do their best work.
How can employers help?
While business owners and HR managers can agree that more mental health support is needed, they may be at a loss as to where to begin. Many default to offering mental health support in their benefit programs by partnering with mental health providers. This is important but not a sufficient approach.
Spot red flags
One way to support your staff, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic is by training management, HR personnel, and other employees to detect red flags. The goal is not to diagnose an employee. Only a qualified professional can provide a diagnosis and the right treatment.
Learning how to spot signs that someone might struggle with mental illness can help open a conversation with the employee and make sure they have access to the right resources.
What are some signs someone at work may present issues with their mental health?
- Productivity drop: Often, this is the first sign team leaders and management notices. For example, the employee has been making mistakes, delivering inferior quality work, not meeting targets, or missing deadlines.
- Changes in behavior: While not necessarily a sign of mental illness, sudden changes in attitudes and behaviors can signal the employee might have other personal struggles worth talking about in private. They may get to work late more often, appear irritable or impatient, be quieter or more talkative than usual, or complain about lack of sleep, feeling tired, or pains and aches.
- Struggle with decision-making: A sudden streak of indecision in someone previously more confident might be a sign of anxiety or other mental health issues. This might get worse with high stake decisions or when having to commit to a choice when the employee feels observed or under pressure—for example, during a meeting.
- Social isolation: While some people are natural introverts, any sudden changes in the way they interact with coworkers could be caused by mental illness. People struggling with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues might find socializing overwhelming and exhausting and avoid gatherings.
Of course, these signs are not definitive signs someone has mental health concerns. The only way to discard other possibilities is to have an open conversation with the employee.
Talking about mental health
Conversations about mental illness can be difficult, and more so in the office. These are intensely private matters, especially when combined with personal issues. So, how can a manager or team leader approach it?
1. Frame the conversation in terms of the support you and the company can offer.
2. Ask what you can do to help, provide the employee with a list of resources, and if you have experienced something similar and are comfortable sharing it, briefly mention it. A study shows that in the United States about 46% of workers said their companies had shared no resources with them.
3. Practice active listening and give the person your full attention.
4. Discuss workloads with the employee and adjust as necessary. For example, you can ask how they’re feeling about their current tasks, which ones they’re finding more challenging, and if there are alternative tasks they’d prefer to take on to unload those taking up too much of their energy.
5. Show empathy. Even if you haven’t experienced something similar, acknowledge the employee’s feelings and experiences. For example, you could say something like, “I see why that experience has caused you anxiety.”
6. Lead by example. By making self-care a priority for you, you allow your team to adopt more self-care measures at work.
7. Check-in regularly. By reaching out to your team regularly, you’re laying the foundation for conversations about mental health in the future. It will help you detect potential issues early and create an environment conducive to health conversations.
8. Talk to the rest of the team. While you don’t want to disclose your employee’s personal information, do notify the team if they’re going to take on extra tasks for a little while. Alternatively, you can ask who would like to take on the extra tasks.
Conversely, there are some things best avoided to have a productive conversation about mental health:
- Diagnose the employee or suggest they may have a particular condition.
- Give them unsolicited advice about how to handle their mental health or other personal affairs.
- Adopt judgmental attitudes. Conversations about mental health can be extremely difficult for the employee, so coming across an unsympathetic or judgmental manager can be demoralizing. If you can, set up a meeting with your employee at a time when you’re not feeling tired or stressed.
- Make it all about productivity. Exemplary leaders are those that truly care about their team. In fact, focusing too much on poor results or mistakes can make the person feel accused or on the spot.
- Be inflexible. When someone is going through a mental health crisis, their productivity is not the same. Depending on the cause of their illness and the severity of the symptoms, they may need time off, a slightly lighter workload, or just a bit of extra support. Flexibility with projects and deadlines will be necessary to accommodate as the team readjusts.
The National Mental Health Awareness Month is a fantastic opportunity for you and your company to come up with more ways to support employees with their mental health.
While there’s no need to become an expert in mental health, becoming familiar with some red flags, adopting a supportive attitude, sharing resources for employees, and being more open about mental health and self-care is a fantastic first step toward supporting your employees.