The most important thing managers should know about discussing mental health at work

Throughout the pandemic, workers have made it clear they expect their companies to make greater investments to support employee wellness, including by discussing mental health in the workplace and acknowledging how outsized work demands are leading to burnout

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Managers play a crucial role to help recognize signs of anxiety, stress, and burnout, and facilitate conversations about mental health with employees, says Deborah Grayson Riegel, an author, speaker, and management expert who has taught at Wharton and Columbia Business School.

But even as these conversations become more common in the workplace, she tells make It managers must keep one crucial thing in mind: Being a leader doesn’t mean you’re expected to have all the answers and solutions, and having that expectation can do more harm than good.

“If you are not a licensed medical or mental health professional, you are not to act as [your employee’s] medical or mental health professional,” Riegel says.

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However, being a leader does mean being a bridge to other resources, such as directing your employee to a group that can help them understand their health insurance coverage, or an employee assistance program that will connect them to a therapist.

Managers can and should make an effort to ask employees how they’re really feeling, about work or otherwise, Riegel says. Ultimately, this can give them a better understanding of what challenges they’re bringing into the workplace that could impact performance, and how workflow changes or company policies can ease the stress.

Riegel suggests starting a conversation and specifically saying, “Let’s put work aside for a second. How are you outside of work?” Check-in routinely, and consider kicking off discussions by sharing your own thoughts and challenges, which could create a sense of trust that will make your employee feel more comfortable sharing.

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Also, be clear they don’t have to share anything they’re not comfortable with within that moment. If you get the sense they don’t want to continue the conversation, give them permission to end it. Riegel suggests approaching this clearly by saying: “I want you to know that I care about you and that you can bring anything to me whether it’s work- or not work-related, but I also don’t want to be pushy. Would you like me to stop asking?”

Remember: Even if your employee doesn’t open up to you about what’s causing them stress, it doesn’t mean they don’t have support at home or elsewhere at work.

“Managers need to keep in mind that it is important for your employees to have somebody to talk to, but it doesn’t have to be you,” Riegel says. “If the answer is not you, rather than take it personally, be happy that they’ve got a resource.”

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As a manager, “there are so many things that you can do to help someone feel heard, understood, valued, and not isolated,” Riegel adds. “When somebody is willing to talk to you about what they need, you don’t have to be their therapist or best friend, but you do have to be a good listener and bridge to resources.”

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