Discussing Mental Health: Best Practices for Managers and Employees

Posted April 24, 2019 by Moses Balian in Managing Your Team
Discussing mental health issues in the workplace is difficult. Whether you’re a manager or an employee, discover some best practices to help you with these conversations.

As anyone with mental health issues knows, you don’t simply leave things at the door when you walk into the office. The things that are on your mind tend to stay there, and they can interfere with our focus and productivity, our relationships with colleagues, and career ambitions. To get the help and support you need, it may be worthwhile to broach the topic with your company or manager.

Discussing mental health issues is difficult. Whether you’re an employee approaching your boss or a manager who’s unsure of how to respond to a plea for support, we have some best practices to help you navigate these delicate conversations around mental health.

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For Employees with Mental Health Issues:

When to Bring it Up

Your first consideration might be whether to even bring up your mental health issues with your boss at all. If your mental health condition is negatively affecting your job performance, consider requesting an accommodation. It’s better to request an accommodation before your job performance suffers. Think about whether any of these situations have come up:

  • You’re not meeting attendance expectations
  • Your workplace relationships have declined
  • You’re being given less work, not meeting deadlines, or seeing other indications that your performance is lagging

You might not need to request a reasonable accommodation to address these kinds of situations. You might consider asking your manager or HR department for professional coaching without bringing up your mental health. If your workload is overwhelming, maybe you can delegate tasks to other team members.

If you do decide to bring it up, remember that this is a sign of strength, not weakness — it’s cheesy but true! A lot of employers will want to help, especially if you’re being proactive.

Related Article: Improve Your Mental Health at Work With These 6 Midday Break Ideas

Having the Conversation

If you don’t feel comfortable going to your manager directly, go to HR first, or even another manager you trust. It’s totally normal that you may be feeling vulnerable, or worried about how your boss will perceive you.

A very typical accommodation employees might seek is to take time off work to see a counselor or therapist during normal business hours.

If you do decide to reach out to someone at your company, think about your goals. Your aims should be either to seek support or accommodation, as it relates to your mental health. A very typical accommodation you might seek is to take time off work to see a counselor or therapist during normal business hours, as it can sometimes be hard to get evening appointments. If possible, be reasonable about when you schedule your appointments — maybe over lunch or during the last hour of the workday — to meet your boss halfway.

Another example of an accommodation could be a reduced work schedule, or a partial or full remote work relationship (if your job is suited to remote work and your employer can sustain this arrangement). Your manager will likely put a timeline in place for how long this arrangement lasts before you come back to your normal schedule.

If you’re looking for additional advice on how to have conversations around mental health in the workplace, your therapist is a great person to ask. If you don’t already have one, try making an appointment. Or, if your company offers access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), you can access counseling and therapy services that way. In any case, getting professional guidance as to how to best approach the situation is a great idea.

For Managers and Employers:

Engaging in the Dialogue

As a manager, sometimes your employees might proactively bring up their mental health issues with you, but in some cases, they will not. If someone is experiencing performance or attendance issues that you suspect might be due to mental health issues, initiate the dialogue yourself.

Tact is paramount. Try opening with, “You don’t seem yourself today, is everything okay?” From there, be sure to ask open-ended questions (such as, “Is there anything we can help with?”) and reserve your judgment. You’ll also want to inform the employee of the types of support that are available — including reasonable accommodations — to enable the employee to perform the essential functions of their job, and remind them of workplace policies and procedures for requesting a reasonable accommodation.

Try opening with, “You don’t seem yourself today, is everything okay?”

As an employer, you’ll want to consider the legal landscape as it relates to mental health. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law applying to companies with 15 or more employees that requires covered employers to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with disabilities, unless doing so would cause an undue hardship. The ADA also requires covered employers to engage in an “interactive process” to determine the precise limitations created by the disability, and explore possible reasonable accommodations.

This interactive process is a two-way conversation between the company (typically the HR team) and the employee to determine the appropriate reasonable accommodations, and should address:

  • The employee’s accommodation needs
  • Potential accommodations that may address the needs, including alternatives to an employee’s requested accommodation; and
  • The difficulties that such potential accommodations may pose for the business

Aside from reasonable accommodations, an employee may be entitled to leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or state/local law. Many states and localities have similar laws which may have different or additional requirements, including specific notice and documentation requirements.

Related Article: Growing Businesses, Take Note: Key Federal Employment Laws to Know

Other Mental Health Issues

For other mental health issues that aren’t covered by the FMLA, ADA or applicable state/local leave or reasonable accommodation laws, there are plenty of other ways you can help your employees. Encourage the use of EAP services, like those available to Justworks customers through Health Advocate.

Employees seeking support might simply want to be reminded that they’re not alone. At many small companies where relationships among coworkers are close, it’s important for people to know that they don’t have to keep their lives a secret. Express institutional support by letting them know you care about them as a person and that they can bring their whole selves to work.

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Another great way to give employees more support is to pair them up with an advocate or mentor in the office, preferably another manager to whom they don’t report directly. Ideally, you would work with someone from HR to be the third-party who can help set this up. This mentor should be someone the employee can trust and turn to when they need help or professional guidance. Having someone at the manager level will be able to frame things in a professional capacity, and help be a coach on how to communicate and process issues as they pertain to the workplace — rather than helping with personal problems like a therapist would. It’s great to have the mentor and mentee set up regular check ins, say once a week, where the employee can bring up anything they want.

Related Article: What Mental Health Benefits Should You Offer Your Employees?

Helping with Work Stress

While many employee mental health issues stem from their personal lives, it may be the case that work stress is a contributing factor. If so, this is an area where you as a manager or employer can certainly help. There may be things about your company’s culture or this individual’s workload that could be worked on to alleviate some stress. Try asking:

  • What part of the workday do they find most stressful?
  • What tasks are most stressful?
  • How do they feel about receiving negative feedback?
  • Do the expectations of the job make them feel pressure rather than positive motivation?
  • Do they feel stress about work relationships?

Maybe they don’t feel confident in their job — help re-train them. Focus on tasks the employee is most confident in to boost more positive feelings toward work. And when possible, offer accommodations in the way of flexible work and remote work.

Discussing and dealing with mental health issues in the workplace can be difficult, but if you are committed to caring for your team, it’s an effort well worth undertaking.

This material has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, legal or tax advice. If you have any legal or tax questions regarding this content or related issues, then you should consult with your professional legal or tax advisor.