“Hey boss, can I talk to you for a few minutes?”
As a manager, you’re called to do many different things. Fielding questions and concerns from your team members about their mental health challenges may not be called out in your job description, but it will likely be part of the job — and one that you’ll have to navigate on the fly. Nevertheless, with the right knowledge, this potentially challenging conversation can have a very positive outcome. Here are 5 tips to keep in mind when discussing a mental health challenge with an employee.
If your employee opens up to you about a mental health challenge they are facing, your goal should be for them to feel relieved and hopeful after disclosure. Try to ensure that there will be little to no interruptions so that they can feel fully heard and taken seriously. This creates a solid foundation and should make the rest of the process go more smoothly.
As you listen, remain as calm and relaxed as possible as you let them share what they’re there to share. Be curious but not intrusive or nosey. Make sure to convey with words and body language that you’re open, trustworthy, and caring. Let them speak and share what they’d like, and keep your reactions as neutral as possible. It’s important not to downplay, but also not to catastrophize. Balance is key.
It’s crucial for the employee not to feel judged or to feel alone in their struggle. Disclosing a struggle with mental health should be as accepted as disclosing a struggle with a broken ankle, but disclosing a mental health challenge naturally comes with a little fear of being misunderstood. You can help alleviate these fears by validating their feelings with statements like “That does sound like a difficult situation,” and “I can understand why you would feel that way.” This validation can greatly help the other person feel secure and empowered on their journey.
It’s also important to recognize and verbalize that it took courage and trust for the employee to disclose their challenges to you. Thank them for trusting you with the information, but not in a “this is such a big deal” manner. Instea, simply convey that you’re grateful to be trusted with their personal truth and experience.
One practice that can be helpful is to share a small bit of your own personal experience with mental health challenges. Anxiety, difficulty sleeping, a loved one’s depression that you may have encountered… all of these lived experiences can be beneficial. Shared experience can help foster a sense of “being seen” and feeling less alone. It can also show that you’re real and authentic, not like a boss who’s got every duck in a row and every life problem solved and expects their team to be the same. A little appropriate sharing affirms that mental health is a safe topic of discussion. Just be careful to not accidentally make the conversation about you. 😉
Let them know they have your support, even if you don’t have immediate answers. Offer to help them locate helpful resources (luckily, you’ve got Tava in your corner) and offer to connect them with HR. Remind yourself that you’re not their therapist, you’re their boss. It’s not easy to disclose an “imperfection” to someone who has a degree of influence on your career, so keep in mind that even though you don’t intend to misuse the information they shared, they don’t necessarily know that.
You should also assure the employee that information they shared with you will be kept as confidential as possible. Sometimes corporate policy or local regulation will require that you disclose certain information related to your employee’s mental health, generally to make sure the employee can benefit from rights and protections they’re entitled to. Check with HR to make sure you understand what you may be required to disclose, and let your employee know as well.
It might also be helpful to explore what if any accommodations might help them with their current challenges. If they make requests, assure them you’ll look into what’s possible. You may not be able to accommodate all of their requests, but actively listening and taking notes shows them you’re trying. Ensure they know that helping them is a priority, and that you’ve got a team in place.
Situations like this are a huge opportunity to be the type of leader you want to be, to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. Making it known that you’re a go-to open-door manager can create the type of environment people thrive in. You can be seen as a leader and role model of “do as I do,” and Tava is here to help.