How can managers best support employees’ mental health
Managers need policies and procedures on how to respond to behavioral issues, with specific measures that correspond to the severity of a problem and its effects on colleagues and overall workplace performance. | ©Neosha Gardner / CreateHER Stock
How can managers best support employees’ mental health
Here are five strategies employers and managers can use to better support employees’ mental health and wellness.
COVID-19 has inflicted a serious mental health toll on many U.S. workers.
Like other Americans, workers have lost loved ones, connections to friends and family, and the comforts of their daily social rhythms. The pandemic has also imposed a unique set of stresses on workers, including the risks of losing their job, rapid adjustments to working from home, and additional workloads. And workers on the front line must face an increased risk of infection and increasingly aggressive customer interactions.
As a result, many of these workers – especially nurses, doctors, and teachers – report elevated anxiety, depression, and sleeping problems. Americans are also drinking a lot more alcohol, overeating, and less physical activity. One-third of them have gained weight since the start of the pandemic.
This is true in every walk of life and every kind of work that you might find yourself engaging in, whether it’s a purchasing marketplace or whatever else. The fact is that mental health is struggling in so many people around the world, and this needs to be looked at much more closely in every sector.
I research the negative effects of stress on health and sleep. I also see many of these issues firsthand in my work as a clinical psychologist treating local firefighters for stress and other issues they encounter on the job and in their lives.
I’ve learned employees are better able to navigate mental health issues when their employers have a plan in place. Based on my own work as well as other research, I believe there are five key strategies that companies could adopt to better support employees’ mental health.
1. Creating clear HR policies on workplace behavior
2. Partnering with mental health providers
Many workers who suffered as a result of the pandemic may not be exhibiting clear mental health problems. Rather, they could be experiencing a disruption in their personal lives that is bleeding into and negatively affecting their work.
An example might be an employee who spends a significant amount of time discussing a marital conflict during home quarantine, thus interfering with workplace productivity.
In this case, a manager can support employees' mental health by putting in place a mitigation strategy that would refer that employee to a mental health provider or other supportive resources who can help. In these cases, it’s useful to have an established partnership with a local provider and for employers to become familiar with the resources that are available to support employees’ mental health. You can partner with therapists, mental health facilities, chaplaincy organizations, and even substance abuse centers to direct employees in need to the right place to get help and support.
Over half of civilian workers have access to an employee assistance program, which provides free, confidential counseling to employees. Some larger companies may have their own in-house programs that provide direct access to mental health providers. But even smaller companies can set up partnerships that give workers access to counseling on an ad hoc basis.
3. Preventing mental illness with wellness programs
Workplaces can also take a more proactive preventative stance when supporting employees’ mental health.
Workplace wellness programs help prevent mental health problems by teaching employees new skills that support resiliency, which can act as a buffer from the negative effects of stress.
Workplace wellness programs for mental health typically teach stress management skills. Programs that promote positive emotions may also improve productivity.
While these programs can have a meaningful, positive impact on health, employee participation is often limited. It is very important to include workers in decisions about which programs to adopt to increase participation.
4. Fighting mental health stigma by changing norms
Employees can experience substantial stigma because of mental illness or their mental health struggles. They might avoid treatment because they are concerned about losing their job or being viewed differently.
Employers and managers can support employees' mental health and tackle stigma at the structural level by thinking about mental health concerns the same way they deal with physical ones and by increasing mental health literacy within their company.
Another way to do that is to train dedicated employees to assist colleagues in need and become advocates for mental health and wellness services. Since some employees may feel more comfortable reaching out to a colleague than a mental health provider, these internal advocates can provide a bridge between employees and mental health care.
Companies can also develop programs where employees can hear people with mental illness describe their challenges and how they overcame them. Research shows creating these social contacts can reduce stigma, at least in the short term.
5. Nurturing social support through teamwork
Finally, a large body of research demonstrates that social support buffers the impact of stress.
Social connections to the people around you can inspire what psychologists call “collective efficacy,” or a shared belief in a group’s ability to work together and overcome challenges to accomplish goals. Collective efficacy improves group performance and is also a key ingredient in trauma recovery.
The COVID-19 pandemic fueled what some describe as a mental health crisis. Employers are in a strong position to help curb it.
Patricia L. Haynes, the author of "How can managers support employees’ mental health," is an Associate Professor of Health Promotion Sciences, University of Arizona. The article was first published in The Conversation, a network of not-for-profit media outlets publishing news stories from academics and researchers.