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How you can best support the mental health of the people you manage



Here we go again – lockdown 2 and the continuing uncertainty of living and working during a global pandemic and its economic, political and social  fallout. We don’t know what is coming next and that’s taking its toll on our mental health. As much as we might like to return to the way things were, we won’t. So here’s the challenge: let’s use this opportunity to create the mentally healthy workplace cultures.


We saw an impact on mental health early in the pandemic. Levels of anxiety, depression and stress were all higher than expected in early April. Although there was a moderate decrease in anxiety through April and May 2020, we are not yet back to pre-pandemic levels.


Before the pandemic, employers were increasing their focus on workplace mental health, but this is even more critical now. As we navigate various transitions over the coming months and years, your employees are going to struggle with anxiety, depression, burnout, trauma, even PTSD. We need to be aware that those mental health experiences will differ according to factors like gender, race, age, job type, parenting and caregiving responsibilities. So now more than ever, employers need to prioritize proactive and preventive workplace mental health training for leaders, managers, and individual contributors and draw on experts like Illuminate Charity.


But there are some key and simple ways of managing people we can all start to use today. Even in the most uncertain of times, a manager’s role is the same: to support your team members. That includes supporting their mental health. The list below not only helps your team but makes you a better manager and leader.

  1. Show you are vulnerable - One positive of the pandemic is that it is beginning to normalise talking about mental health as almost everyone has experienced some level of discomfort. But the universality of the experience will only result in breaking traditional stigma at work if people, especially managers and leaders, share their experiences. Being honest about your mental health struggles as a manager opens the door for employees to feel comfortable talking with you about any mental health challenges they may be facing. Describe your challenges, whether mental-health-related or not. It makes you human, relatable, and brave. As well as being the right thing to do, research has shown that authentic and humble leadership can cultivate trust and improve employee engagement as well as performance.


  1. Ask - Intentionally checking in with each of your direct reports on a regular basis is more critical than ever. While we are mostly working from home, it can be hard to notice the signs that someone is struggling. Go beyond a simple “How are you?” and ask what is going on for them and what support they would find helpful. So if someone shares that they are struggling, try saying “What would be most helpful to you right now?” or “I’ve been through something similar. And while I don’t want to make this about me, I’m open to sharing my experience with you if and when it would be helpful.” Listen. Wait for the full answer and encourage questions and concerns. Don’t overdo it though, take your lead from the person you are talking to and never micromanage. What’s most important is to make time to hear how your team members are truly doing and to be empathetic and compassionate. They may not want to share much detail, which is completely fine. You may not have all the answers, which is also fine as your listening maters most and you can always draw on your HR or other resources. Knowing that they can talk to you is what really makes all the difference. 


  1. Demonstrate the right behaviours - As with the example of sharing your experience above, it’s important to model self-care and set boundaries so your teams feel free to do the same. Often managers are so focused on their team’s well-being and on getting the work done that they forget to take care of themselves. Share how you are doing and what you are doing to manage your mental health. So you may be taking a walk in the middle of the day, having a therapy appointment, or setting work boundaries so that you don’t burn out.


  1. Allow for flexibility - The situation, your team’s needs, and your own needs will continue to change. Your regular check ins  let you know what’s happening so you can respond. These conversations also give you an opportunity to reiterate norms and practices that support mental health. Don’t make assumptions about what your direct reports need; they will most likely need different things at different times. Take a customized approach to addressing common stressors, such as challenges with childcare or feeling the need to work all the time. Proactively offer flexibility. Be as generous and realistic as is possible. For example, some organisations are allowing employees with any type of caretaking responsibilities to set their own work schedules. Others are allowing for e-mail free time. Flexibility can help your team thrive amid the continued uncertainty. And normalize and model this new flexibility by highlighting how you’ve changed your own behaviour.


  1. Build a culture of empathy within your team - Empathy is defined as: - “the ability to share someone else's feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person's situation”. Ask all your team members to listen, be patient and kind to their co-workers. Also encourage them to share how they are doing and feeling as well as their tips for self-care. Model and praise empathetic behaviours. 


  1. Communicate - Communicate even more than you think you need to.  Keep your team informed about any organisational changes or updates. Clarify any modified work hours or norms. Remove stress where you can by setting clear expectations upfront e.g. about workloads, prioritizing what must get done, and acknowledging what can slide if necessary. Make your team aware of available mental health resources and encourage them to use them.