When thinking about the changes that need to happen to make mental health a more acceptable topic at work, we often consider the high level changes that need to happen in company policies to make our workplaces more accepting. The idea is that the macrocosm of driving better corporate policies and laws will in turn have a trickle down effect and impact our day-to-day work lives. We are a long way from that happening, and there are great initiatives by larger mental health organizations spearheading this change. What I want to focus on today, is the reverse of this idea.
If we make changes to the microcosm – meaning we educate and change the views of our managers and coworkers, or the people we interact with each and every day, we can have small, but effective changes easily and without significant changes to company costs. The sad reality is that most managers today are not equipped to deal with an employee with a mental health concern. And how would they? They’ve never been trained, and the topic is not brought up unless there is already someone in crisis, which renders the efforts too little too late. It isn’t necessarily fair to put the blame entirely on the manager, but a manager has a responsibility to foster an environment where the employee is both supported and able to perform their job to the best of their ability. If either of those things is missing, it is that much harder for the employee.
I’ve had tons of managers throughout my career, and each one had a significant impact on me, and in turn, my mental health. I’ve even been in situations where I didn’t have a manager, and that was a long time ago at the beginning of my career, when I needed support more than ever. I remember having no one to go to or ask for help, so my way of dealing with issues was to put on a brave face at my desk, and then have a quick, 3-minute mental breakdown in the bathroom when things were a little quieter. These breakdowns were not pretty at all, and I would sometimes become physically ill – on the verge of passing out, or puking from the stress. No one noticed. There was no one to notice. Even if someone senior to me did notice, they never said a word because they were also dealing with their own stress. In those pivotal moments, having an understanding manager could have completely changed my experience.
Anna’s* Story (*Note: names have been changed to protect the identity of the person who shared their story)
Anna had only been working at an organization for about 6 months, often putting in overtime, and frequently got overwhelmed to the point that coming into work seemed impossible. During this time, Anna was also dealing with more anxiety than ever before. She saw a doctor and was given a change to her medication in order to help cope with it. Anna tried to make her anxiety known in her workplace, but realized quickly that not only did management not take mental health issues seriously, but they also made fun of them. While adjusting to new medication, Anna noticed that the side effects and adjustment period made it difficult to perform at work. When in a meeting with management, Anna disclosed that she felt her performance suffering and explained the reasoning behind it, hoping for some support or flexibility that would be mutually beneficial both for her and her company. Management told her to “put up or shut up”. Shortly after this meeting, Anna was let go for poor performance.
It may be hard to believe Anna’s story, but it happens more often than you’d think. There was a time for me when my mental health was so bad, and my physical health was so severely impacted by it, that I needed to be in therapy (physical and psychological) roughly 3 times per week. I had a great medical team behind me, but their hours were often not flexible enough to accommodate my demanding work schedule. I would need to leave work around 4:30pm, but would come in early or work after in order to make up for the lost time and would work longer than the length of time I was gone. I spoke with my manager about this immediately, and had an entire plan created on how I would ensure my work got completed on time, and agreed to communicate clearly with my team that my work would not suffer. I expected (and hoped for) a very positive response since I had already thought through the pain points, and 30 minutes didn’t seem like a lot of time to miss. My manager looked up at me, shrugged, and said “take care of your shit.” Unsure about whether this was a positive or negative response, I looked at the senior manager in the room, who looked up and said “just ensure your deliverables are met and nothing slips through the cracks.” That was that. No support, no understanding, nothing. I was made to feel guilty over the next few weeks for leaving early, and people often commented on how I was slacking off, or living a life of luxury.
I still keep this experience with me, because I know that my mental health could change at any moment, and I still leave work early sometimes for therapy. When I brought it up with another manager at a new company, she quickly assured me that it was no problem at all, and made it clear that my health and my well being came before anything else. She reiterated that I would have all the support I would need, and encouraged me to take all the time I needed. I have the utmost respect for her, and she is an excellent example of how a manager should respond to a health issue, mental or physical.
The impact of a negative manager experience can be significant and cause reductions in employee morale, productivity, and performance quality. On the flip side, I’ve thrived when a manager has had a positive response when I’ve explained a mental health concern.
My jobs have always primarily consisted of sitting at a desk, or in a meeting, with very few people. This works perfectly for me because my anxiety is heightened in crowded situations, or when an environment is too stimulating. One time, my team was asked to help out at an offsite event. There would be lots of people, it would be fast-paced, and likely more than a little stressful. New environment, new people, and a recipe for severe anxiety. From the day I found out, about three weeks before, to the week of, I barely slept. I knew it wasn’t a situation I was equipped to handle, and was aware that the anxiety leading up to it, as well as the panic during the event would be too much for me.
Finally, I decided to talk to my manager – but going into it I was so overcome by stigma, that I found myself coming up with other reasons as to why I couldn’t participate. Throughout our conversation, she was understanding and sympathetic, and I found myself explaining in a low, shaky voice that I didn’t think it would be good for my anxiety of mental health, and braced for the response I had heard so many times before.
Instead, I was met with more compassion than I could have imagined in my best case scenario. She agreed that it was definitely an anxiety-inducing situation, and that I was under no obligation to participate. She then asked about what type of response we could craft together if people asked in case I wasn’t comfortable with people knowing about my anxiety. I was so relieved and shocked by how supportive she was that I felt I could cry. That is how a manager needs to respond to mental health concerns. Compassion first, details later. As a result of being given permission to make positive choices for my health, I found myself working harder than ever. And even though I didn’t participate in the event itself, I played an active role in getting things ready leading up to it, and took on extra to “hold the fort down” while people were at the event. Because my manager responded to my mental health issue appropriately, we turned my inability to participate in one thing into an opportunity to take charge in something else. A situation that could have indicated a lack of performance became a vehicle to drive better performance. When managers work together with their employees to support them, empower them, and give them what they need, everyone benefits.
So, if you’re reading this, and you’re a manager (or hope to be one), please consider the following 10 tips to be better:
- Take care of your own mental health – if you aren’t looking out for yourself, and leading by example, then your employees will never feel they can take care of their mental health. You also cannot be supportive to others if you are not okay yourself.
- Educate yourself – being educated on mental health concerns, mental illness, and promoting positive mental health can be crucial to supporting your employees. Not only is this a key focus if you’re a manager, but just as a person in general because mental health is important and relevant to everyone.
- Be kind to your employees – you never know what types of challenges your team may be encountering outside of work, and as their leader you have the power to set the tone for others’ behavior.
- Lead with empathy – if someone comes to you and opens up about a struggle, show empathy first, and then focus on the actions that need to be taken.
- People first, work second – make sure your employees know that as people, they are more important than the work that needs to be done. Sometimes there will be deliverables or deadlines that cannot be delayed or compromised, but generally, people are more important and need to be reminded of this.
- Check in – when was the last time you asked an employee how they were doing, and really meant it? When was the last time you had a conversation, even for 30 seconds, about your team’s emotional or mental state with things? Do a pulse check, and if things aren’t going well, be ready to take action.
- Look for warning signs – your team spends more time with you in a given day than they do with their spouse, children, friends, or family. Therefore, you are the first person that should be able to notice the signs they may not be okay.
- Provide frequent feedback – there is nothing more stressful than not knowing how you’re performing, and having a manager that doesn’t keep you updated so you get blind sided on a performance review. If someone does something well, tell them immediately. If someone isn’t performing, give them a chance to improve sooner rather than later.
- Accept and adapt – people have different needs, and they may require different accommodations. Be accepting and able to adapt to these differences. For example, if someone on your team gets severe anxiety and needs to work slightly different hours to avoid the subway during rush hour, encourage that.
- Use your voice – employees don’t always have a loud enough voice to demand change at an organizational level. As a manager, you have the power to push that message up the chain that employee mental health matters, and that more needs to be done to empower yourself, your peers, and your employees to meet their mental health needs.
Keep Surviving by Living