Statistically speaking, it’s likely that someone in your workplace is dealing with a mental health issue right now, whether you’re aware of it or not. By age 40, approximately 50% of Canadians will have experienced some form of mental illness, and 1 in 5 people experience a mental health issue each year. When a global crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic strikes, our collective mental health is put under even more strain than usual.
As a leader, you have a responsibility to check in on your employees and ensure that you’re providing the tools and resources they need to take care of their mental health during these times. Providing a safe, welcoming space to address mental health can be the difference between someone suffering in silence and getting the help and support they need to deal with the issue head-on. Below are some tips for reaching out to employees and making your workplace a safe space to discuss mental health.
break down mental health stigma at work
Mental health issues are extremely prevalent. 50% of Canadians 40 or older have experienced a mental health issue in their lifetime. Despite this, employees often keep silent about their mental health struggles, fearing how they will be viewed, especially in their workplace. Leaders have a critical role in breaking down these stigmas and making sure employees feel safe when opening up about their struggles and the type of support they need.
- Just 50% of Canadians would tell friends or coworkers that they have a family member with a mental illness, compared to 72% who would discuss a diagnosis of cancer and 68% who would talk about a family member having diabetes. We need to break down beliefs that mental health is not a valid illness like ones that affect the body.
- People who suffer from mental health issues often feel like they will be viewed as weak or less than capable. Colleagues may be unsure if they can rely on that person to show up or fulfill their role. These assumptions are harmful and need to be challenged, especially in the workplace. Someone going through mental illness is sick and needs treatment, not assumptions.
- Create an open environment where talking about mental health is normal. Encourage senior leaders and managers to speak openly about their mental health concerns, stress management and self-care. This helps employees feel more comfortable voicing their own concerns and needs and reduces the stigma around mental health.
recognize that mental health is a spectrum.
Mental health is not black and white, either you have an illness or you don’t. It’s important to recognize that there are areas of grey between being perfectly healthy and being mentally ill. People can struggle with mental health issues without having a severe illness. They can also move through the spectrum throughout the day, experiencing mental health highs and lows within the same day. As an employer, being understanding of these ups and downs and recognizing that employees are only human is critical.
This graphic, from the Mental Health Commission of Canada, showcases the mental health spectrum.
be aware of signs and symptoms
If you notice someone on your team is acting differently than normal, take note, and reach out to them to see if you can offer support. Simply check-in and make sure they’re okay. Here are some signs to watch for that may indicate an employee may be struggling:
- their behaviour, attitude or appearance is different than normal
- they removing themselves from participating in company events
- they keep their video off for calls, miss or are late for meetings, or do not make deadlines
- they sound distracted, forgetful, or hopeless
- they have previously experienced mental health illness, they are struggling, or have physical conditions they are concerned about
starting a conversation
Starting a conversation about mental health can be difficult for some people, especially if they’re not used to opening up. Like many things, practice makes perfect. Make it normal to talk about mental health. Creating a culture of openness where employees feel safe and do not fear repercussions will make it easier to talk about difficult subjects. When you’re broaching mental health, as a leader, here are three golden rules to follow.
- listen first, talk second.
Staying quiet and simply listening can be more difficult than you think. But it’s incredibly important to stay quiet and let them share how they’re feeling before you jump in. Though it may be your instinct to comfort or empathize with their feelings, suppress those urges until they’re finished.
- use “I” statements.
Speak from a personal place, as one person to another. Try not to jump into statistics or something you read about mental health. These things can create distance or make it seem like you’re trying to ‘solve’ their problem, rather than being actively involved in the conversation.
- ask how they prefer to be supported.
Everyone has different needs when it comes to their mental health. Rather than making assumptions or telling them what you can do, ask them how they want to be supported and build a plan around their needs.
examples of conversation starters
Broaching the subject is often the hardest part of talking about mental health. If you’re not sure how to start a conversation about mental health, here are a few ways to bring up mental health during COVID-19.
- “I have noticed lately you aren’t as chatty in our weekly calls. How are things going?”
- “I’m really missing X. How have you been feeling lately?”
- “I recently listened to this amazing webinar on mental health and I took a lot away about how to have better conversations. I was hoping we could chat.”
tips for building a mentally health workplace
foster open workplace dialogue
Proactively take steps to reduce stigma and talk about mental health in your workplace. Encourage regular conversations between managers and employees about mental health. If talking about mental health is normalized, when employees are going through mental health challenges, they will feel comfortable talking about them with their leader.
develop mental health resources
If you don’t already have resources available to support employees’ mental health, create a toolbox or intranet page where employees can go to find the resources they need. You can create your own resources, use an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), or a combination of the two. Also don’t forget to regularly send employees reminders about the supports available to them.
designate mental health ambassadors
Select people within your organization who can serve as mental health ambassadors. We recommend you provide additional training to your mental health ambassadors so they can speak about mental health in an informed way. Your mental health ambassadors should be points of reference your employees can turn to for support and information about mental health.
have a zero-tolerance policy for harassment and discrimination
Make it clear that harassment and discrimination of any kind are not acceptable in your workplace. Draw a clear line, and make sure that all employees are aware of your policies and the consequences. Focus on building positive values like openness and inclusion into your brand values and work culture.
provide ways to connect
Creating ways for your employees to connect at work is always important. During the COVID-19 pandemic, make sure that these points of contact don’t disappear. Make it a priority to set up virtual interactions and times for employees to socialize around a digital water cooler. Create communities and other spaces where employees can connect; this will help minimize the loneliness and isolation of working from home, especially for people who live alone.
promote work-life balance
Stress is one of the leading contributors to mental illness. Setting reasonable expectations for employees and making sure they’re able to achieve a healthy work-life balance can reduce stress significantly. That’s especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic when many employees are working from home and the lines between work and home have been blurred. Make sure employees are able to set boundaries and have a clear division between their work and personal time.