How to stop worrying about employee mental health

You can turn your worry about your employees’ mental health into constructive action when you learn what to watch for and when to act, write Alyson Meister, Kathleen M. Pike and Daryl Tol

This article is republished with permission from I by IMD, the knowledge platform of IMD Business School. You may access the original article here.

The loneliness of quarantine and social isolation, navigating loss and grief, blurred work-home boundaries, the ongoing uncertainty of COVID-19, political tension and escalating global conflict, continue to strain people around the world. Instances of anxiety and depression have sharply increased, and a late-2021 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association reports that 63 per cent of Americans feel stress due to uncertainty, one in three struggle to make even basic decisions (like what to wear or to eat, or whether and where to go out), and over 60 per cent of people are rethinking how to live their lives and shape their careers. Indeed, more than ever before, employees are talking about mental health, experiencing symptoms of mental health challenges – and particularly younger generations – are choosing to leave their organisations for mental health reasons.

When we speak to rooms full of leaders, we sometimes ask how many of them have experienced mental health struggles personally or within a close circle of family and friends. Predictably, all hands will go up. Fashion entrepreneur and CEO, Emma McElroy opens up about the need for CEO vulnerability: “I don’t think I know a single founder who hasn’t had some kind of brush with depression, had suicidal thoughts or experienced some level of intense mental stress.” Despite this, it is common to feel entirely alone when in the midst of struggle.

Read more: What was the real impact of COVID-19 on our mental health?

More leaders now recognise that to cultivate a thriving workplace and retain talent, they must take seriously their own mental health, and that of their employees seriously. For example, in a keynote addressing mental health, Bank of America CEO, Brian Moynihan says “Taking responsibility for employee mental health is a win-win situation; it not only encourages top performance, but it fosters stronger company culture and genuine relationships between employees and leadership.” Gordon Watson, CEO of Axa Asia, says “Mind health is necessary to a holistic approach to health.”

We find that while more business leaders are increasingly concerned about their employees’ mental health, their concern is compounded by the worry that they will misstep and make matters worse for someone in their workplace who is struggling. In fact, just the opposite is true. It is often a caring and thoughtful conversation that serves as the catalyst to help people get the help they need.

Educating yourself about what to watch for, being “present” enough to notice, taking the time to listen and knowing where to find required support can set you up to be that person. Whether employees are facing difficulties inside or outside work, they may benefit enormously from simple and supportive conversations with managers and colleagues who can help them if they feel anxious or depressed.

It is often a caring and thoughtful conversation that serves as the catalyst to help people get the help they need-min.jpg
It is often a caring and thoughtful conversation that serves as the catalyst to help people get the help they need. Image: Shutterstock

What to notice and when to act: three things to consider

People’s mental health fluctuates just like other health conditions. Learning how to recognise that a mental health issue may be brewing is key. So, how can you ascertain whether an employee’s behaviour should be something of concern? We advise leaders to consider three factors: impairment, severity, and duration. Consider these both individually, and together to help guide you in decided when to intervene.

1. Impairment: First, when you are concerned, ask yourself the question, ‘‘What is this person doing, expressing, and/or how are they being different from usual?” Impairment relates to changes in things like usual emotional expression, competence and abilities, or what might be considered normal or regular behaviour and performance of the individual. For example, when it comes to behaviour, you might notice that a particular employee that is typically positive and proactive has gone silent, takes increasingly more sick days and doesn’t respond to email or deadlines. Maybe you’ve noticed that they’re working at what seems like all hours of the day, day in and day out, and cannot seem to distinguish between urgent and not urgent. Emotionally, you might notice a colleague acting in uncharacteristically erratic or even explosive fashion. The colleague may engage in, or contribute to, escalating conflict with colleagues, or they may distance and isolate themselves. Physically, your colleague may even become lethargic, or appear constantly irritated and restless.

Read more: Are we seeing the Great Resignation – or the Great Exhaustion?

It is common to avoid crucial or uncomfortable conversations and to ignore signs of impairment as passing or imagined. However, these markers of impairment are red flags for mental health concerns, including burnout, and are best addressed early. The most commonly noted signs of impending burnout are things like physical exhaustion (i.e., constant tiredness and low levels of energy), emotional exhaustion and increased cynicism (i.e., lack of empathy for others, pessimism), and lack of professional efficacy (i.e., feeling of reduced mental agility, lowered confidence, and difficulty making what seems like simple decisions at work).

2. Severity: Another factor to consider is severity of the behavioural change, emotion expressed, or the particular incident you are concerned about. For example, has this change in behaviour had a noticeable, negative and important impact on the employee’s work performance and relationships? Is this fleeting irritation or deep cynicism and agitation during most work activities? An extreme emotional outburst, reference to suicidal thoughts, or a conflict that escalates to physical harm needs to be addressed quickly.

3. Duration: Finally, consider how long this impairment or severe pattern of behaviour has persisted. It is not unusual for people to feel anxious about a potential health problem to experience a low mood after some bad news or when witnessing (or experiencing) global conflict. Typically, individuals can bounce back after some rest, the weekend off, after a longer vacation, or when the stressor itself starts to resolve. However, if this behaviour change has become less short-term and more of a general pattern, it might be time to intervene, even if that impairment isn’t necessarily what you might consider severe. In fact, it is very common that employees struggling with mental health issues or burnout to remain physically present in the workplace but perform well below the norm.

It is common to avoid crucial or uncomfortable conversations and to ignore signs of impairment as passing or imagined-min.jpg
It is common to avoid crucial or uncomfortable conversations and to ignore signs of impairment as passing or imagined. Image: Shutterstock

What to do

Using the three guidelines, first reflect on whether your colleague’s mental health is something that you specifically need to (and should) address. Is this situation within your own sphere of influence, and how much so? If this is a colleague you are mildly acquainted with or if you are concerned about extreme behaviour, it may be more prudent to first address your concerns with human resources, a mental health professional or first aider in the organisation, or the individual’s direct supervisor. It is okay – and sometimes necessary – to acknowledge that there are situations that extend beyond both the expectations, the capabilities, and remit of managers. Raising your concern confidentially to a colleague that the individual trusts, and who may already be addressing this situation, can be a good first step.

If you feel comfortable having an initial discussion with the individual you’re concerned about, you might say “I’ve noticed that you might be struggling at the moment, is there something I can help with?”, and offer a chat over coffee or to go for a walk. Be respectful of their answer. People have a right to their private life, and you should not push a colleague to speak about their mental health if they’re showing signs that they are uncomfortable with the inquiry.

Read more: Three useful things to know about mentally healthy workplaces

If you do have the conversation, and a colleague discloses a mental health condition, acknowledge and thank them for their trust, and be open to listening, and offering support. You might help to normalise the situation if you have a similar story to share. It’s important to maintain professional boundaries, as managers are typically not trained psychologists and taking on someone else’s mental health challenges can be detrimental to your own. You might consider how you can help with organising workload, with time off, or support your employee or colleague in a search for mental and physical health resources the organisation offers.

Remember: your worry may be an important warning sign of an impending issue that needs to be addressed, but worry itself will neither help you, nor your colleague. By considering the three factors of impairment, severity, and duration, engaging with your colleague with respect, and informing yourself regarding your organisation’s programs and services will go a long way to promoting mental health in the workplace.

Alyson Meister is a Professor of Leadership and Organisational Behaviour at IMD Business School in Switzerland and specialises in the development of globally oriented, adaptive, and inclusive organisations. Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology at Columbia University and serves as Director of the Columbia-WHO Center for Global Mental Health; Chair of the Faculty Steering Committee for the Global Mental Health Programs; and Deputy Director of the Health and Aging Policy Fellows Program. Daryl Tol is Executive Vice President of One Mind, where he leads One Mind at Work, a global movement of business leaders focused on improving psychological safety and mental health in the workplace.


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