“During our weekly team meetings, my supervisor started asking everyone to answer the question, ‘How are you emotionally and mentally?’ the letter begins. “On the one hand, he seems to have good intentions and be sincere in your concern.” But the writer is at his wit’s end – and they ask popular by Alison Green Ask a manager weighing column.
As someone with invisible illnesses, the writer says, they are likely to share anything about their mental health with their employer. So what about the boss who pushes people to share their emotions at team meetings?
One answer seems clear: while employees should be able to talk about how they feel, asking them to do so — and to do so publicly — is an overkill. Although the letter dates back to 2020, it captures a conflict that many managers still grapple with.
The pandemic has marked a new turning point in how we discuss mental health in the workplace. But managers who want to encourage a supportive culture still struggle to find the right balance. How do they do it without crossing their team’s sense of boundaries? How involved should they expect to be? And should managers feel responsible for the well-being of their employees?
It’s understandable that managers feel conflicted about how to help the well-being of their workers. But new studies suggest that employees do want more support for their mental health.
Just take a recent Workforce Institute Survey of global workers, which finds that three-quarters of employees report higher expectations of how their company supports them. In the United States, another report by Lyra Health reveals an increase in the number of employees who have opened up about their mental health at work, with the number nearly doubling in the past year, from 23% to 43%.
It’s no surprise that workers are looking for support. We see records global stress and worry, regular reports burnout that persists and the workplaces that pile it on higher challenges.
The Lyra Health report, for its part, finds that four out of five American workers have experienced a mental health problem in the past year, ranging from problems such as stress and burnout to clinical conditions such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. And another study by Mind Share Partners found that 84% of workers surveyed said their working conditions had contributed to a mental health problem for them.
What’s a manager to do?
Of course, companies can always offer more mental health resources, like EAPs and short-term counseling, or employee resource groups dedicated to mental health. But when it comes to initial support, the work often starts with team leaders.
“Managers are frontline HR,” says Denise Rousseau, a professor of organizational behavior and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, in our guide talk to your boss about mental health. With personal relationships at stake, managers need to balance supporting their employees with respecting their privacy, boundaries and needs.
So where do managers and other team leaders start? On the one hand, by anticipating the barricades in their path and mapping the measures they can take to circumvent them.
The barricade: Every employee is different and often has a different idea of the kind of support they want. So managers may feel like their options (anonymous wellness surveys, more encouragement for mental health days, or an open door policy) may start to look like a game of Tetris. They don’t know how to fit them together.
A step to overcome it: Before assessing individual needs, take a step back and assess your team’s culture. When your practices show that your team values wellness, employees will be more willing to name what they need.
On the one hand, the US Surgeon General offers a set of reflection questions managers can use to design their team culture around mental and emotional well-being. Action-oriented and specific, the questions range from balance-building strategies to bond-building tactics. With them, managers can assess whether the team culture provides a basis for support, and then move on to individual needs.
The barricade: While many managers wish to accompany the challenges of well-being at work, they do not always have the tools to launch them. Think of that well-meaning but misguided manager who pushed his employees to share their emotional and mental state.
A step to overcome it: Push for proper training for mental and emotional support. Studies show that even three hours of mental health training motivates managers to promote well-being at work. Good training can give leaders lifeline on how to do things right without pushing people beyond their limits.
For starters, the EARN Inclusion Network offers a wealth of resources in its mental health toolkit. And in a peer-driven approach, managers can also work to establish peer listening programsthat train colleagues to actively listen and navigate peer-to-peer mental health conversations.
The barricade: Absent from many of these conversations? Managers also carry their own mental and emotional challenges. On the one hand: in the The Latest Future Forum Pulse Report43% of managers said they were burnt out, outpacing both individual contributors and senior executives.
A step to overcome it: Model good mental health practices for yourself and you’ll open the door for your team to do the same. Name when you go for a walk, plan a short vacation, or take time to prioritize something in your personal life. If you take a mental health day and feel comfortable saying it, share it. In fact, turn off your after-hours notifications. Be a beacon of balance.
When managers model behaviors for well-being, their team members will feel like they can follow suit, setting boundaries and prioritizing their own mental health.
The way to go
When we ask whether managers should feel responsible for the well-being of their employees, the evidence says yes. Workers report that they want to more support at work for their mental and emotional health. Managers and team leaders just need to know how.
By recognizing the differences between teammates, the need for tools and training, and the burdens managers carry themselves, we can be better equipped to provide the right kind of support and build well-being on and off the job. .
More resources for well-being at work
😌 To relieve burnout, try the worry-free approach. It may be counter-intuitive, but the way to engage in your work might be to take care a little less.
🚧 There are ways to set boundaries at work without being called an idiot. A suggestion: recognize the person who will intervene when you need to take a break.
🔥 Six telltale signs may explain the real reason you’re burning out. Map of two leading burnout researchers the core areas that show the root causes of burnout.
🌎 You may be confusing your burnout with larger systemic issues. The next time you feel burnt out, examine whether the problem is bigger than you— and how addressing the system might solve the problem.
💬 Start conversations about mental health through four common scenarios. Our guide to talk to your boss on well-being.
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