The past year hasn’t been easy for organizations. Besides the effects on employees’ personal lives, COVID-19 brought its fair share of commotion and stress in the workplace, afflicting the mental health of workers. Supervisors and human resources managers have an important role to play in mitigating the impact of such stressors. Despite your best intentions, you may worry about what kind of role you have in your employees’ mental health. How far can or should you go? How can you support your employees without neglecting your mental health? To answer these questions, we’ll propose different approaches that will allow you to positively impact your employees’ mental health while respecting your personal boundaries and preventing your own exhaustion.
First, managers and co-workers are well-positioned to detect warning signs of an employee’s deteriorating mental health. Warning signs can vary from person to person, but they generally come with noticeable changes in the employee’s behavior (e.g., avoiding co-workers, difficulty performing assigned tasks, or irritability, among others). If you notice any of these signs, promptly discuss them with the employee in question. When people experience mental health issues, it’s like driving on the highway during a snowstorm: reduced visibility makes it easy to miss the exit. Moreover, the employee might simply not be aware that they’re overwhelmed and fail to see the potential consequences. Then again, they might not know where to get help. The sooner you recognize the signs, the sooner you can provide the employee with support before the situation takes a turn for the worse. But what kind of support can you offer them?
When you meet with the employee to express your concerns, it’s important not to jump to any conclusions and to focus on the facts and your observations (e.g., I’ve noticed that you’re logging in later than usual. I’m a little concerned. Is everything okay?) Remember that your role isn’t to carry out a diagnosis of the problem, but to share your concerns with the employee. You can also talk about the impact that these new behaviors are having on your team.
Then, discuss potential solutions with them. Offer your support by asking how you can help them get back on track. If the employee’s difficulties are personal, provide a list of resources that may be of help. Encourage them to contact your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) as a first step towards feeling better. If one isn’t available, encourage the employee to take advantage of the services covered by your group insurance plan (e.g., your state or province’s order of psychologists) or encourage them to look into government or community services (e.g., government-run mental health support networks or crisis lines). Go to the meeting prepared with a list of resources to provide to the employee. Remember, your role isn’t to become their psychotherapist, but to show consideration and to support the employee in doing their job.
It can be emotionally draining to support employees experiencing mental health issues, especially when we ourselves aren’t immune from stressful and difficult circumstances, as with the current pandemic. To avoid exhaustion, set boundaries on the kind of support you can offer. First, remember that your role should never go beyond work. It’s within the confines of this scope that you can help the employee. During your discussion, lead the conversation back to the workplace and what you can do to help them in that area. If the employee is experiencing difficulties of a more personal nature, inform them of the available support resources. This shows that you care about them, but that you’re firmly working within the scope of your job as a manager. Furthermore, you don’t need to be the only source of support for the employee; identify other sources available within their environment. Build with them a network of official and informal resources that can serve as a safety net.
In short, if you want to help an employee with their mental health issues, you must be able to take care of yourself first. Just like the safety flight instructions before takeoff, it’s necessary to put on your oxygen mask before helping the person beside you put on theirs. Taking care means giving yourself daily breaks to recharge. Activities that allow us to relax, have fun, and mentally disengage from work are effective ways of taking care of our mental health. Allow yourself to disconnect and don’t feel guilty when you do so. Lastly, watch for warning signs in your own mental health. Whenever you notice any, be sure to get the help you need. By doing so, not only will you take care of your mental health, but you will also lead by example for your employees to do the same.
DR. SOPHIE MEUNIER, Occupational and Organizational Psychologist, Sophie Meunier has a PhD in Business Psychology. She worked for 6 years as an organizational psychologist in the private sector and has been dedicating herself to both research and teaching at Université du Québec à Montréal since 2016. Her main research projects focus on the individual and environmental determinants of psychological health in the workplace.