How Managers Can Learn to Talk About Mental Health

BY Emily Nonko | August 02, 2022

It’s increasingly clear that the workforce is not okay. More than 40% of adults are reporting diagnosable mental health conditions and an estimated 50 percent of people with depression never seek help. Managers, who are often the first point of contact for these employees, are rarely trained on how to identify, talk about, and address their mental health.

Managers, however, are the missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to workplaces holistically addressing those needs. They just need to know what to do.

“First and foremost, it’s okay to talk about it,” said David Malmborg, the VP of marketing for Nivati, an employee mental health and well-being platform. “Something that managers really need to understand is that it’s okay to talk about mental health.” (When onboarding new clients, Nivati will distribute stickers that say “Therapy is Okay” and “Self-Care Isn’t Selfish,” along with other messages promoting conversations about mental health.) Once managers are given permission to have these conversations, there are concrete strategies to ensure these conversations lead to meaningful care across the workplace.

Secure Buy-in From Leadership 

There’s increasing buy-in from companies to invest in mental health: according to a 2022 State of the Workplace Mental Health report, 92% of companies said providing mental health support for their people became a higher priority for their company in 2021. “HR really wanted more mental health benefits but the C-suite was not ready to invest in that,” said Amelia Wilcox, founder and CEO of Nivati. “But it’s been going on long enough that now the C-suite is concerned.”

Yet leadership support has to go beyond investment. “Executive teams need to lead the charge and lead with empathy,” said Malmborg. At organizations where leaders embrace mental health practices, talk about these issues openly, and are candid about their own mental health needs, Nivati has seen that employees utilize its well-being platform at levels three times higher than companies where CEOs don’t engage. “Executives can be a huge catalyst for conversations that go on in the office,” Malmborg said. “And I recommend you bring your executives to the table when having that conversation about mental health.”

Trust Your Employees 

Both executives and managers might need to shift their perspective as they enter these conversations to fully trust employees as they open up about mental health. Leadership teams don’t question physical health concerns, but often don’t treat mental health needs the same way. When an employee confesses they’re unable to get out of bed because of anxiety, managers need to trust them and give them the space to care for themselves, just as they would for a physical health issue.

Amelia Wilcox, founder and CEO of Nivati (Photo courtesy of Nivati)

Understand the Signs and Symptoms

It’s important that managers understand the different signs and symptoms of poor mental health. “You don’t need a mental illness to experience burnout/stress/anxiety/hopelessness,” said Haeli Harris, the lead mental health clinician at Nivati. She pointed out that mental health struggles can impact our emotions, thoughts, behavior, and physical health. They can result in difficulty concentrating, exhaustion, and other symptoms. And they results in an estimated 200 million lost work days per year due to anxiety and depression.

Harris suggests that managers learn how to recognize the common signs of depression, anxiety and ADHD, the three most common mental health issues in the workplace.

Be Sensitive to Communication About Mental Health 

Once managers pay attention to the signs and symptoms, they should be prepared on how to talk with struggling employees. To start, managers should understand that confidentially is crucial to establish a position of trust.

Addressing the topic should also be treated with care, so that the worker’s feelings are validated, but not necessarily their assessment of their situation, which could be colored by those feelings. “Validation is important, but there’s a difference between validating the person and validating the scenario,” said Malmborg. “Training on validation, and how to validate the person and not the scenario, is incredibly important.”

Finally, the Nivalti team recommends affirming talking points. For example: “How are you coping?” or “Has work been stressful for you lately?” or “What is concerning you today?” They should avoid accusatory or dismissive statements such as, “Why don’t you snap out of it?” or “It’s in your head” or “Look on the bright side.”

Know Your Resources

Managers should also receive training on the resources available at their workplace. “This is one of the most important things to know–we don’t want managers giving solutions or advice, but they need to know where they should be pointing people to,” said Malmborg. This might be an Employee Assistance Program, an employee-wide wellness program, or a specific staff member. “Every company is different,” Malmborg said, and as leaders fine tune the company’s resources, they must keep managers in the know.

Encourage Mental Health Best Practices and Tools 

“Always encourage everybody in the company, but especially leaders and managers, to have mental health best practices,” Harris emphasized. Wilcox adds that talk therapy is only one solution and that employees have diverse needs. Nivalti’s platform also offers resources on life coaching, meditation, yoga, fitness, massage, nutrition, sleep, and personal finance. “The idea is to offer holistic mental health solutions,” Wilcox said.

Other tools, Harris said, include following mental health resources like the Nivati blog, the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and Psych2Go. Employers could also facilitate regular one-on-one sessions between managers and employees.

Prioritize Self Care and Mindfulness

Beyond workplace resources, managers can encourage their employees to regularly practice self-care and mindfulness. Self care might include exercising, relaxing, journaling, or turning off the phone to unplug. A mindfulness practice can include breathwork, meditation and yoga. “We know that when employees regularly practice mindfulness they have reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety,” Harris said.

Perhaps one of the most important components to this practice is a workplace that encourages its employees to set healthy boundaries. “This can really come from the leaders, setting boundaries between you and work and creating that healthy home/life/work balance,” said Harris. She recommends setting a schedule and creating a routine; turning off notifications during off hours; keeping at least one day a week work-free; making a “commute,” even if it’s just a walk after the work day; and working and resting in different spaces if you’re at home.

Editor’s note: From Day One thanks our partner who sponsored this story, Nivati.

Emily Nonko is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. In addition to writing for From Day One, her work has been published in Next City, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian and other publications. 


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