What to do when an employee has mental health issues?

Mental health issues are experienced by many of us throughout our lives, and they will most likely impact us both professionally and personally. That is why it is paramount for managers to know how to react to employees opening up about their mental health issues.
Like most things in life, being prepared is preferable to being taken by surprise. Especially in the work environment, where mental health issues can abruptly transform into employee absenteeism.
In this piece, we explore how to navigate this sensitive topic and the 5 priorities for a manager when an employee discloses mental health problems.

1. The importance of being proactive 

Mental health and well-being at work are an unavoidable topic with tremendous consequences on a company’s productivity, and ability to innovate and retain talent. According to the World Health Organization, 15% of working-age adults live with a mental disorder (including but not just anxiety, depression, etc.). The extent of milder issues is much more profound and can trigger more complicated cases down the road if not addressed properly early on.
Nurturing a healthy work culture and environment is key for a company wishing to grow and thrive. That does not mean eradicating mental health issues but being prepared for the eventuality of someone coming forward with mental health problems and knowing how to best respond to their needs.
The first thing you want to make sure of is that your leadership team is aware and trained to identify the changes in behaviors and triggers that could lead to mental health problems. It is not even the question of empathy; it must be a basic skill of a manager these days. If someone suddenly comes in late repeatedly, misses work, or shows a clear lack of interest when they used to be engaged, one has to know there’s something affecting this behavior.
Noticing signs is not enough. Albeit more and more addressed since the COVID pandemic, mental health problems remain somehow stigmatized, and most people are still wary of openly sharing their issues, especially in their professional circles.
So, as a starting point, you want to make sure that your leadership is approachable and has created enough of a safe space so that, in case of problems, your employees feel they can reach out to their managers. That is when the importance of psychological safety in the workplace will start to emerge.
One of the elements of psychological safety is open communication. There needs to be clear ways for employees to be able to address their managers beyond the team meetings. Having a mental well-being open door” policy allows employees to easily schedule ones, start meetings with more personal check-ins simply asking how people truly feel, and lead by example by sharing (not to be confused with oversharing) personal insights.
Finally, make sure that your leadership knows about all the resources on the topic the company already has in place and that they encourage every employee to make use of existing tools. In our experience, the most profound users of mental well-being support tools are the employees of a company, where the CEO himself or herself shows vulnerability and leads by example.
This work is clearly a team effort and does not solely depend on the manager or HR.


2. The way you react matters

It is never easy to hear about someone’s personal issues, especially in the workplace.  How the manager reacts when an employee is first approached can make or break trust. That is why being trained is really essential.
If you know what to do, an employee coming to you to address their mental health issue should feel much less stressed and much more controlled.
First things first, it is important to demonstrate six things:
  • Being thankful for their trust shows you have created a work environment that nurtures trust and open communication!
  • maintaining consistent behavior—that is to say, do not become overly friendly or grow cold.
  • show understanding while normalizing the situation to reiterate that it is perfectly okay to talk about mental health.
  • demonstrate active listening—listen with the intention to understand rather than respond.
  • Keep the trust by keeping your exchange private and without asking too many details or personal questions. However, if your company’s policy demands that you inform HR, be open about it right away.
  • Make sure to schedule a followup meeting and regular checkins for the time being.
Indeed, being prepared also means knowing what is doable and what is not within the company.


3. Support, but do not overpromise

When someone opens up about mental health issues, it can be tempting, especially if you are close to your team or are faced with someone clearly displaying distress, to promise that you will fix everything. Although it is good to show understanding and offer support, you must know to what extent you are realistically able to do so.
It is better to say that you will do some research or talk to HR about the resources available and get back to them (be clear when) rather than overpromise.
Some things can be implemented relatively rapidly and easily:
  • Show flexibility when it comes to work hours (that, of course, depends on your industry) 
  • Have more social activities to reinforce a sense of belonging
  • Create work zones for deep work and more social work 
  • Notice and acknowledge hard work through reward programs 
  • Appoint a mental health representative
  • Host workshops on time management and other skills that could support your employees 
  • Engage the help of professional third parties. Platforms and apps such as Siffi, Headspace, or Meditopia offer different types of support, from meditation sessions to individual assessments and access to psychologists. Some are open to all users, while others specialise in assisting HR teams and companies and guarantee both privacy to the user as well as key indicators of the well-being of their team to the employer.  Let the professionals do their job while you support individuals in accessing them.
Those are adaptations to your company’s policy.
Other things, such as a long-term specific exception for one employee, would need to be addressed differently and require more time and research to find the best outcome for both parties. Any type of accommodation for an individual would also need to be introduced to the rest of the team, making sure it would not negatively impact them or their productivity.
Once again, all of those things might be possible but cannot be decided on the spot.


4. Know the rules and regulations and the key role of HR

There is, to this day, no European Union regulation regarding mental health in the workplace.  At best, there are rules that ask employers to assess psychosocial risks and introduce measures to avoid them. But this is really the lowest level of guidance one can imagine.
However, the topic is being discussed, and there is a goal to set the minimum health and safety requirements for mental health at work. Research shows that current individual standards in European countries are insufficient, referring to the increase in work hours, the gender pay gap, the lack of autonomy, time pressure, discrimination, and poor work-life balances as features that could cause mental health issues.
At the very least, in many Western countries, a company has a Duty of Care” – That is to say the legal and/or ethical obligations from the employer toward the employee to be able to carry out their work. This usually encompasses safe working conditions, an anti-harassment and discrimination policy, making sure the employee is properly trained, as well as addressing potential factors that could lead to poor mental health and well-being.
It is essential that the leadership understand the dos and don’ts within the company as well as legally at the national level.  In some countries, for example, it is forbidden for the employer to reach out to an employee on sick leave, while in other countries, it is recommended to keep employees updated during their recovery. 
HR plays a key role in addressing mental health. It is their role (together in collaboration with many stakeholders) to:
  • develop regulations and policies. HR should keep themselves updated and regularly inform the leadership about changes and regulations at the regional, national, and international levels.
  • provide resources: HR should have a list of tools and mental health professionals easily accessible and regularly updated to provide to any employee who may need it.
  • inform and promote—whatever initiative is put in place or tool is introduced, HR should make sure there are no barriers to access.
  • Support managers: HR is there to assist and support managers in best responding to their employee’s needs.
  • Lead initiatives and campaigns lead training and workshops with the help of professionals and support platforms


 5. Make Mental well-being Measurable 

Every company has measures in place to manage and control its budget. We employ metrics in assessing marketing campaigns, and we want accountability from sales teams. However, where we fall short in most cases is visibility into organisational wellbeing. It is not yet a habit to set employee well-being as one of the KPIs and apply measurable objectives to it.
Fortunately, in a data-led era, there are tools and applications that help to address this objective easily. This can be engrained into 360-degree employee assessment tools like Peacon Voice etc., mental well-being solutions like Siffi, or subjective ways of collecting this feedback through 1:1s.
To conclude, keep in mind that there is no “one size fits all” or “cookie cutter” solution for mental health issues in the workplace. What works for one person may fail for another. As a manager, you are not expected to diagnose or provide therapy, as you are neither a therapist nor a doctor. You are, however, expected to be prepared and open-minded, to actively de-stigmatize, and to have tools and systems in place while making the employee feel valued and heard.