Leadership Tips for Supporting Mental Health in the Workplace

“I asked you here today to let you know where I’ve been for the past month. I was in a mental health facility.”

So began a conversation with a colleague that I admired tremendously.

His confession surprised me; we had worked on a long-term project together just three months prior. I had no idea he was suffering. Even more surprising was the ease with which he shared his news. Business associates rarely discuss the state of their mental health. But there we were, noshing on the lunch special at our favorite Chinese restaurant, discussing his condition with refreshing candor.

Gavin* explained to me that he’d not been feeling himself for many months; work pressures had been piling up and he wasn’t coping well.

“I reached a breaking point … I had what I guess you’d call a nervous breakdown,” he stated matter-of-factly. He continued, “I wanted to tell you personally because I value our friendship. And, I know that people are talking about it and I wanted you to hear it from me personally.”

What makes this story even more amazing is that this conversation occurred over 20 years ago. Gavin was way ahead of the curve in terms of transparency about his mental health. Today, the conversation about mental health has started to come into the mainstream with well-known people such as Prince William, Kate Middleton and Prince Harry raising awareness with their Heads Together program.

Even with these awareness-building efforts, there’s still a huge stigma attached to talking about mental health in the workplace. Though rarely discussed, mental health challenges are more common than you might realize. According to the Center for Workplace Health, “1 in 5 adults will experience a diagnosable mental illness in any given year” and only half of those with the illness will seek treatment.

The cost to businesses is staggering: according to the the World Health Organization it’s estimated that the global economy loses $1 trillion a year due to lost productivity associated with mental health conditions.

Few of us outside the counseling and psychiatric professions have the training or experience to know exactly what to say or do when it comes to issues of mental health. This puts leaders in a difficult place because it’s their job to create a healthy workplace environment — one that promotes both physical and mental well-being.

Would you know how to respond if a peer or direct report shares their story of a mental health challenge with you? Here are three measures leaders can take to appropriately support the mental well-being of their workforce.

How to provide a supportive response

The most important thing you can do for someone who shares their (or a family member’s) challenge with mental health is to stay nonjudgmental and supportive. Keep it brief and affirm their decision to come forward with the information. Try a supportive phrase such as:

  • I hear you.
  • I see that this is painful for you to discuss.
  • I understand that is difficult for you.
  • Thank you for trusting me with this information.
  • It takes courage to speak up. Thank you.

Things to avoid when talking about mental health issues

Nobody expects leaders to diagnose or treat a physical condition such as diabetes, and the same goes with mental health. If your company has an employee-assistance program, refer the person to that program or to the HR department.

It’s also best to avoid giving advice, pep talks or stories of someone with a similar situation. Even if you’ve been in a similar situation, it’s not helpful for the other person to hear the details of someone else’s pain.

Reducing the stigma about mental health conditions in your organizational culture

Leaders set the tone for the way that people treat each other in their everyday actions. In the same way, leaders can create a culture where it’s OK to talk about mental health in the same way as one discusses hypertension, migraines or low blood sugar — all conditions that may affect one’s work day.

The Leading a Mentally Healthy Toolkit, compiled by a consortium of mental health professionals and business leaders, notes that reducing stigma will help people seek the help they need. Just as my friend Gavin calmly and matter of factly discussed his condition and treatment, leaders can normalize the existence of conditions such as anxiety, depression or post-trauma disorders.

At work, we don’t typically hide the fact that someone had open heart surgery or a cancer diagnosis. It should be the same for a mental health diagnosis. As the Center for Workplace Health points out, “respecting and treating mental illness on par with other medical illnesses is the first step to improving employee quality of life—the foundation of an effective workplace.”

As a leader, you have the opportunity to help pave the way for creating parity between how your organization deals with its employees’ physical and mental well-being. Keeping these three tips in mind will help you do so.

*Not his real name. Unfortunately, we are not yet at a place in our society where I feel comfortable sharing his name publicly.

A modified version of this post appeared as a SmartBrief Original and appears with permission.

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