Companies have made serious investments in supporting employee mental health during the pandemic, but stress and anxiety are still high. One key to addressing burnout could be training managers to talk to their employees about mental health. Managers often worry that bringing up mental health at work could cross personal boundaries. To help you find the right way to have these conversations, here are some tips for managers to lead a discussion about mental health without overstepping.
Acknowledge The Discussion Might Be Awkward
Everyone has their comfort level and experience discussing their own mental health. Managers can break the ice by acknowledging that the topic could be uncomfortable. Start the conversation with something like, “I want to talk to you about something that may feel a bit awkward, but I’m going to embrace the awkward because I care.”
You could frame the conversation by using a scale that feels more neutral. For example, on a scale of 1 to 10, where a 10 means you’re completely burned out and 1 means you’re ready to double your workload, where is your energy level today? Another way to frame this is ‘what’s your weather pattern today?’ Is it clear, stormy, or cloudy with some sun?
You can set the stone by sharing your responses first, which can make people feel safe. Speaking up about your struggles will never be easy, but you can make your employees feel comfortable about sharing their own experiences by modeling it yourself.
Don’t Single Anyone Out
Let your reports know ahead of time that you plan to check in with them about how they’re doing, and assure them that you’re having this conversation with everyone on the team. This way, nobody will feel singled out for performance issues, and they will understand this is a group effort.
Make it clear that these conversations aren’t about status updates, but you are open to hearing about what’s causing stress and anxiety at work and at home.
Set aside time in your regular one-on-ones to ask people how they’re doing aside from their work tasks. Start off by suggesting putting work aside for a second and asking how they are outside of work.
Let Them Know They Don’t Have To Share
Discussing mental health at work will take some practice. Check-in regularly. Managers tend to reach out only once because they don’t want to overstep, and it feels awkward, but try not to do this. How someone feels today may be different from how they felt yesterday.
Let your employee know that they don’t have to disclose anything that they don’t feel comfortable sharing. Invite them to share because you care about them, but let them know you don’t want to pry and they don’t have to answer. Just let them know you are ready to talk about anything they want to talk about.
It’s important to come to this conversation through the lens of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. There are significant cultural differences in how people think about asking for help, particularly employees from underrepresented groups or who don’t feel a sense of safety in the workplace.
Know When To Stop Bringing It Up
If you get the sense that your employee doesn’t want to discuss certain things with you, such as if they consistently respond that everything is fine or move to change the topic, know when it’s time to stop bringing it up.
You can be upfront about this too, and give the floor to them by saying something like, “I want you to know that I care about you and that you can bring anything to me whether it’s work or not work-related, but I also don’t want to be pushy. Would you like me to stop asking?”
Recognize If You’re Not The Best Resource
Remember, even if your employee isn’t opening up to you about what’s causing them stress, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have support at home or elsewhere at work, such as a spouse, HR, or an office chaplaincy program.
When you check-in, tell them you’ve noticed they seem stressed, and ask who they have at work or in life to talk to about this.
Managers need to keep in mind that it is important that their employees have somebody to talk to, but that person doesn’t have to be you. If the answer is not you, rather than take it personally, be happy that they have a resource. Make sure your team are aware of any resources they can access at work.