Theoretically, no-one should have better insights into employee struggles than managers, yet many employers remain oblivious when their team members are dealing with mental health challenges. Scott Dylan notes that at the heart of the problem, many employees worry that their colleagues and managers will perceive them negatively if they open up about mental health. Previous employers may have not been understanding and left employees feeling as though they must conceal their struggles to gain respect. But, when employees struggle in silence, their mental health is likely to decline even further.
The majority of us spend most of our lives in the workplace. It’s where we make our friends and income, and it largely informs our mental wellbeing. If a workplace is negatively impacting an employee’s mental wellbeing or failing to offer support for mental health challenges that stem from external causes, employees can quickly fall down the slippery slope to further mental health difficulties – which are often devastating.
Here, the mental health advocate and acclaimed investor Scott Dylan delves into the reasons why employees are often reluctant to discuss their mental health struggles with their employers, as well as the steps that employers can take to break down these walls and support their employees accordingly.
Why Employees Hide Mental Health Struggles from Employers
Workplaces that nurture strong mental wellbeing are far better positioned for productivity and healthy relationships. But to cultivate these workplaces, we need to recognise why employees hide their mental health struggles. Here, Scott Dylan shares four reasons why employees conceal mental health problems from their employers and how managers can break down these barriers to help all employees to thrive.
1) Concerns Surrounding Progression
Employees who are hoping for promotion opportunities may feel that mental health struggles could stand against them when it comes to progression within the company. Unfortunately, as Scott Dylan acknowledges, society hasn’t yet overridden the outdated notion that those in senior roles must be able to withstand extended periods of intense stress without any support. As a result, employees with mental health issues often feel that they must keep their diagnoses a secret.
However, when business leaders make it clear that negative stigma associated with mental health struggles does not stand in the workplace, employees are more likely to share their problems. To encourage this transparency, managers can open up forums for discussion and/or invite a professional into the company to offer wellness programmes, meditation training, counselling, and workplace coaching.
2) The Threat of Redundancies
As COVID-19 wreaks yet more havoc, many firms will have to make cuts, meaning further job insecurity. Many employees with mental health difficulties worry that if management becomes aware of their struggles, they will be the first to lose their positions. Employers should let staff know that mental health issues will not impact any decisions relating to redundancies.
3) Uncertainty Over How Management Can Help
If your company doesn’t offer mental health support, your employees may simply feel that you are not able to support them. However, Scott Dylan believes that when you put protocols in place, you are more likely to gain your employees’ trust. Whether you let your team know that you can facilitate flexible/remote working to accommodate mental health struggles or reach out to dedicated organisations, such as ACAS, you can ensure that there are mental health procedures in place to support your team.
ACAS is a great example of an organisation that you can involve to support your team. They provide a wealth of mental health support tools for employees and employers alike. ACAS reminds teams that mental health challenges can be just as debilitating as physical injuries and that colleagues should treat these issues equally as seriously. By involving ACAS, you can help to redefine your team’s understanding of mental health in the workplace.
Unfortunately, many employees feel that their colleagues will judge them if they open up about their mental health struggles. They don’t want to become a burden to the team or be perceived as ‘weak’. You can counterbalance this concern by emphasising that privacy is paramount always discussing sensitive issues in a confidential environment. It’s a good idea to offer out-of-hours support sessions and/or send an email to all staff reminding them of the steps that you will take to protect their privacy should they need to talk.
How Managers Can Minimise Mental Health Stigma
Now that we’ve established the most common reasons for employees concealing their mental health struggles, it’s time to explore the measures that managers can take to minimise any stigma associated with mental health in the workplace.
These are Scott Dylan’s four tips for managers to reduce mental health stigma and encourage employees to share their mental health struggles.
1) Prioritise Mental Health as a Core Company Value
When you embed wellbeing into your company’s values, your team are more likely to take notice of mental health. Educate them on the impact of psychological illnesses, set up clear mental health procedures, and designate board champions to promote and manage your mental health programmes. With mental health promotion tools in place, Scott Dylan believes you can regularly review your working culture to monitor the positive effect that you are making. As part of your review process, you may also find it useful to send out staff surveys to build data about your employees’ mental health and deliver workplace policies accordingly.
2) Provide Mental Health Training for Line Managers
Depending on the size of your company, you may need to delegate mental health support roles to line managers. In this case, it’s important to provide these managers with training so that they can best support employees who are struggling with mental health issues. Consider the fact that some line management candidates may have personal experiences of mental health issues themselves, which can be a major asset when supporting others.
3) Protect Against Discrimination
While bringing mental health struggles into the open should help to neutralise discrimination, there is a small chance that some unacceptable conduct may arise. It’s essential to address any discrimination against those who are coping with mental health problems immediately. Encourage all employees to report any discrimination or harassment that they experience or witness. It can also help to support local and national anti-discrimination initiatives, such as Time to Change, See Me, and Mental Health Awareness Week.
4) Encourage Applications From Candidates Who Have Mental Health Illnesses
Ensure you link with employability providers to encourage candidates with mental health struggles to apply for roles within your business. You can give these candidates reasons to disclose their stories by establishing a transparent culture that welcomes openness and understanding. When you support full disclosure of mental health issues, you can value the diversity and transferable skills that those who have dealt with – or are dealing with – mental health issues can bring to the table. These individuals can often offer compassion for others and make ideal mentors.
How Managers Can Support Employees with Mental Health Illnesses
Unfortunately, when employers aren’t aware of a problem, it’s much more difficult to offer help. As a manager, the best step you can take to encourage communication is to openly let your team know that you are on hand should they need support. When managers encourage open workplace cultures, they can cultivate transparency and understanding.
Once managers have cultivated an open and transparent workplace culture, employees are more likely to share their struggles. In this case, employers need to know how they can best support employees who raise issues. Scott Dylan recommends the following five tips to support employees when they share their mental health difficulties with you.
1) Offer Genuine Compassion
It’s no good offering support simply because you ‘should’. Managers need to establish individual relationships with employees and genuinely care about each person’s wellbeing. Talking about wellbeing often isn’t easy, but these conversations can mean a lot to those who need support. Approaching your team with compassion and sincerity is the starting point you need to offer help for those in need.
2) Find the Right Place and Time
When discussing sensitive issues, you don’t want to be on a time limit or sitting within earshot of anyone else. Opt for a place and time most comfortable for your employee so that they don’t feel rushed or embarrassed. Be sure to give your employee your full attention – turn your phone off, make eye contact, and listen carefully.
3) Be a Good Listener
When you actively listen, you can remain fully engaged and present in a conversation. It’s important to adopt positive body language and acknowledge your employee’s concerns with nods and appropriate gestures. If you are in any doubt as to your understanding of the issue, repeat what they have said to clarify. You should also ask direct questions, but only so far as your employee is prepared to discuss. When you finish your discussion, you should agree on next steps with the employee.
4) Manage Your Reactions
When an employee opens up to you, it’s possible – or even likely – that you might not like everything they have to say. For example, if their mental health struggles are the result of workplace culture, you might find it difficult to hear their point of view. However, you must reassure your employee so as not to make the problem worse. Let them know that you won’t discuss their concerns with other members of staff (unless they want you to) and refrain from arguing against the employee’s point of view. Don’t feel that you need to offer instant solutions either – you may need to think about this. However, it can be helpful to ask the employee if they have any solutions in mind to fix the problem.
5) Take Measures To Prevent Suicide
As a manager, Scott Dylan believes you have a level of responsibility if you suspect that an employee’s mental health struggles are so severe that they are considering suicide. This is an immensely difficult situation to be in, but there are some steps that you can take to overcome this concern as effectively as possible. First, ask your employee directly whether they have had any thoughts about suicide. Don’t use euphemisms like ‘you wouldn’t do anything silly, would you?’ If you are not reassured by your employee’s reaction, there are three steps that you can take.
· Encourage them to call Samaritans on 116 123. Samaritans offer a free phone line 24/7.
· Help them to call a doctor or friend. You could even do this on their behalf if necessary.
· If you think your employee is at immediate threat, phone the police or take them to A&E.
Most importantly, keep in mind that employees do not typically need one-off support. As an employer, you should continuously support employees as they navigate mental health struggles. You should also take every measure to oversee a discrimination-free workplace. If an employee raises a problem, always listen and take time to consider the most effective solutions.
If an employee’s mental health has reached a severe stage, they will likely need to take time off. In this case, it’s important to remember that taking leave can, in itself, be hugely stressful. Here’s how you can reduce anxiety around taking leave for your employee.
How Managers Can Support Employees Who Are on Leave
It’s vital that employers don’t ignore employees who are on leave. Not only does cutting off a relationship make the employee more likely to leave permanently, but stopping contact is unlikely to help someone who needs support. The best way to support employees who are taking leave due to mental health difficulties is to keep in touch; always maintain communication and inclusion – your employee may be off sick for an extended period, but they are still important to your team.
Perhaps most importantly, Scott Dylan advises that you should ask your employee exactly what they would like you to tell their colleagues about their absence. It can also be a good idea to remind your team that the image that someone presents – often through social media – does not necessarily represent the reality of their situation. Meanwhile, if your staff are attending social functions while an employee is on sick leave, they will likely appreciate an invite, even if they have to decline.
When it comes to your employee’s return, be aware that returning to work after extended leave can induce a high level of anxiety. For example, the employee will likely worry about their colleagues speculating on their absence. Managers can reduce this anxiety by making reasonable adjustments to welcome an employee back to work gradually. For example, a phased return allows an employee to work for a few hours each day and gradually work their way back up to their contracted hours.
When approaching the employee’s return date, give them a call to check whether there’s anything you can do to make their return easier. They may like to have a coffee before work or lunch out on their return day. From there, you can help to gradually ease them back into their work routine, offering support meetings to monitor progress.
Mental Health in the Workplace and Legal Rights
Managers need to ground the steps that they take to minimise mental health challenges in legislation, which protects employees’ rights in the workplace. In particular, the Equality Act (2010) protects UK employees* who are struggling with mental health problems by entitling them to reasonable adjustments in the case that they experience discrimination and harassment at work. The Act requires employers to address discrimination against mental health struggles in the same way that they would for matters relating to religious faith, race, gender, and sexual orientation.
*The Disability Discrimination Act (1995) protects those in Northern Ireland.
Reasonable adjustments enable an employee to adapt their working routine to reduce the effects of their disability, which may be a mental health disorder, such as anxiety, depression, or PTSD, amongst others. A reasonable adjustment may involve changing an employee’s working hours so that they can start late or finish early to accommodate medication requirements. Another example could be providing an employee with remote software so that they can work remotely, either full-time or on occasion. Employers can seek funding for equipment, software, and other support to facilitate reasonable adjustments from the government’s Access to Work scheme.
Providing Mental Health Support for Your Team
With Scott Dylan and his tips in hand, you should now find it easier to recognise the signs of employee mental health struggles and address necessary changes. You can learn more about how to manage mental health struggles in the workplace at Scott Dylan’s blog, where he shares articles about mental health resources, reducing stress, and improving your mental wellbeing.
Scott is the founder and key partner of Fresh Thinking Group (FTG), a capital investment organisation that funds and guides distressed firms, start-ups, and companies looking to grow through revolutionary business development processes to realign them for success. Fresh Thinking Group has funded and plotted growth methodologies for numerous thriving firms, including the mobile-development app Cuhu, on-demand laundry service Laundrapp, and national logistics company GLB Transport. Read more about Fresh Thinking Group at https://freshthinking.group