How Can Managers Approach Mental Health in the Workplace?

How Can Managers Approach Mental Health in the Workplace?

Mental health and 2020

2020 has been a lot. 

It’s been unprecedented on many fronts – a global pandemic, continued social justice unrest, and the heated tension of the US presidential election – just to name a few. 

All of this has impacted the world at large, our communities, but inevitably also has taken a toll on our personal mental health.

In fact, anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicidal ideations have elevated in 2020, and family and domestic violence and abuse have been on the rise globally since the pandemic.

Statistics aside, most of us can relate to the heightened stress this year, and stress inevitably impacts how we show up at work.

If you’re a manager, you might find that your colleagues and team need additional support during this time. 

Mental health at work

As a manager, your role isn’t to provide therapy. But you have an influential role to make the workplace a source of support in people’s lives.  

This means that instead of contributing to the reasons why someone might seek therapy, you’re choosing to offset their mental stress through the way you communicate and lead during stressful times. 

We spend most of our time at work, and managers can have a huge impact not only on the workplace, but also employees’ mental health. 

3 things you need to know about mental health as a manager

1. Mental health includes the whole person 

The whole person philosophy embraces all parts of the individual at work. This means that if there are pressure and conflict at work, it’ll impact the individual at home and vice versa. 

But it doesn’t stop there. Mental health isn’t just focused on the mind. Including the whole-person philosophy – our body, heart, and mind are all connected.

This means our emotional and physical well-being also contributes to how we feel mentally. For example, if someone is physically ill or going through a heartbreak – it’s going to affect their mental state, and how they show up at work. 

Mental health is how well we’re feeling and functioning on a daily basis.

2. Mental health is more than a diagnosis

Mental health isn’t just reserved for only those who have been diagnosed with a disorder. 

Mental health is how well we’re feeling and functioning on a daily basis. We’re constantly moving on the scale of how well we feel mentally, emotionally, and physically – and where we are on the scale affects everything we do. 

3 Mental health directly impacts our work and productivity

Research shows stress and psychological safety directly links to our mental health (the two topics we’ll cover in this article). 

Not surprisingly, stress and psychological safety also directly contributes to our ability to be creative, innovative, motivated, inspired, collaborative, curious and articulate – among other qualities that produce great work. 

How is stress linked to mental health at work?

As mentioned earlier, stress is directly linked to our mental, emotional, and physical health. 

But not all stress is bad.

There’s good stress called eustress and bad stress which is distress. Good stress is when we’re faced with a challenge that excites us (ex. starting a new job, or designing a new solution).

Bad stress is when we’re challenged by something that isn’t aligned with what we want or something we’re ill-prepared for (such as working in a toxic environment or being assigned a project due the next day with no support).

In the short term, good stress can actually spike our performance and motivate us to go above and beyond our normal abilities.

Bad stress however, has the opposite effect on our mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. 

To care for your team’s mental health as a manager, it’s helpful to differentiate between the good vs. bad stress individuals are experiencing. And for the rest of this article, we’ll refer to bad stress as just “stress.”

Studies have shown that stress shuts down the part of our brain that is responsible for higher thinking.

Stress affects how we show up at work

Mentally, we’re not as sharp

Studies have shown that stress shuts down the part of our brain that is responsible for higher thinking. This includes critical or abstract thinking, decision making, and creativity, which are key skills for day-to-day work. 

Emotionally, we’re driven by fear

The logical and emotional-regulation part of our brain isn’t accessible to us when we’re stressed. During this stressful period, we default to our primitive brain, which is motivated by fight or flight, and sometimes freeze behaviors that are driven by fear. 

The state of fear also shut down curiosity, perspective taking, verbal articulation, and social engagement – which are all critical for meaningful work. 

Physically, we get weak (or sick)

Stress has been linked to physical ailments of all types. In fact, it’s been found that 90% of all diseases and illnesses are stress-related. Personally, many of us have experienced getting sick or a flare-up of an existing ailment when we’re under stress, especially prolonged stress. The deterioration of our health directly contributes to work quality in the form of sick days or reduced productivity.

The state of fear shuts down curiosity, perspective taking, verbal articulation, and social engagement – which are all critical for meaningful work. 

Ways to foster mental health at work

Look for signs of stress

The most effective way to assess your team’s stress level is to have a candid conversation about it. 

But here are also some common signs that can clue you in as a manager if someone needs additional support:

  • Slipping in performance
  • Procrastination
  • Repeat cancelations, lateness, or no-shows to meetings
  • Change in communication style or frequency
  • Change in emotional expression 

The equation for stress is when your demand is greater than your resource.

What to do as a manager when your colleague or team is stressed?

The equation for stress is when your demand is greater than your resources. 

A demand is any ask of the individual: new project, solution, report, ideas, presentation, meeting, business dinner, travel, result, outcome. 

Resources can include things like: time, energy, health, social influence, personal network, support at work and at home, knowledge, skills, ability

With this equation in mind, you want to assess which part of the equation is mostly contributing to the stress of the individual or team. Is it demand-driven, or resource-driven?

For example, maybe we’ve set an unrealistic deadline (demand)? Or maybe this person doesn’t have the appropriate information, tools, or network to get the job done (resources). 

Often new managers and sometimes seasoned managers will automatically delegate because that’s what we’re taught to do as managers. But if we’re delegating to someone who’s lacking resources or ability, delegation becomes irresponsible and at times cruel. 

If you suspect someone’s stressed, have the conversation and ask questions to understand if the demand is greater than the available resource and if so, discuss what resources are needed to set this person or team up for success. 

But if we’re delegating to someone who’s lacking resources or ability, delegation becomes irresponsible and at times cruel. 

As a manager, your job is to create psychological safety

Psychological safety is an important concept that many leading companies are focusing on to improve engagement, morale, and mental health at work. 

Psychological safety is the state of feeling protected from harm or other non-desirable outcomes that allows a person to express his/her true opinions, authenticity, and creative risk-taking without negative consequences (self-image, status, or career).

While it’s a huge topic, rooted in psychological and trauma models, here are 5 basic areas to consider when creating a safe environment at work. 

Psychological safety is the state of feeling protected from harm or other non-desirable outcomes that allows a person to express his/her true opinions, authenticity, and creative risk-taking without negative consequences.

1. Social support

Create an environment where genuine relationships are valued and modeled. People need to believe they can create real friendships at work to foster trust. Having strong social support at work enables safety to bring the whole authentic person to work, express true opinions, and have fun.

2. Communication & decisions

Communicate with transparency limiting negative surprises. This means communicating with radical candor – with care and directness, sharing what we know and don’t know, and laying out a fair process for decision making, especially ones that impact employees.

3. Status & Autonomy

Respect and value each other’s roles and include different perspectives.

Managers can provide necessary guardrails or “must-haves” then allow individuals and team to own their creative process and work. This includes creating room to fail when trying something new. 

4. Growth mindset mentality

Innovation tends to die, when the goal is to be perfect. Using Dr. Carol Dweck’s growth mindset model, when assessing individuals or teams, the goal isn’t to judge “this is good” or “this is bad” but to acknowledge the courage and risks taken and opportunities for learning and growth, truly. 

Emphasize on the “truly” because so many managers adopt the growth mindset as lip service rather than embodiment. 

Once the opportunity is identified, the manager needs to provide sufficient support to drive the opportunity- otherwise it just creates more stress on the individual or team. 

5. Nurture and rest

People aren’t machines. Humans do better with periods of rest, reflection, and stillness. Humans also need movement, sleep, nutrition, and hydration. 

As a manager, you can establish the norm for honoring time-blocks for these things.

The time spent on resting, reflecting, nourishing and stillness isn’t unproductive – even though in many company cultures it’s still viewed as such. These are essential vital human needs. These things make us more resilient to stress, more inspired and motivated and dig deeper to create from a place of meaning and care.

Recap

You don’t have to be a coach or therapist to address mental health at work. As a manager, you can impact employees’ mental health by focusing on the two things that are linked to mental health at work – stress and psychological safety. 


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