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Engaging Employees on Their Mental Health

There has never been a more important time to be mindful of the mental health of employees than now. After what organizations have endured during the past 18 months, it’s remarkable that so many organizations can point to quick adaptation and resiliency on the part of their employees as amazing successes.

However, we may be seeing the costs that come with that success (see this ASIS-created infographic on mental health in the workplace). Last summer, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 40 percent of people said they were struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues. The National Safety Council (NSC) reported that 9 in 10 employees said their workplaces caused them stress and 83 percent said they experienced “emotional exhaustion.”


The Mental Health Index is a study led by management consulting firm Total Brain, along with partners that include the American Health Policy Institute and the HR Policy Association. The December 2020 Mental Health Index cited that the risk of general anxiety disorder had increased 80 percent. The index went further and conducted simple tests to see how these stressors affect people’s cognitive ability at different points in time. From prepandemic 2020 until December 2020, the study showed a 9 percent decline in memory recall capacity and a 62 percent decrease in focus and sustained attention capacity.

“Our work and our workplaces impact our mental health and wellbeing,” the NSC said. “This has never been more evident than with the changes in working conditions this past year—with some working from home indefinitely, some in extraordinarily high-stress and high-risk frontline jobs, often for longer hours, and others experiencing layoffs and job insecurities. …Mental distress includes periods of intense nervousness, hopelessness, restlessness, depression, feeling like things require great effort, or feeling worthless or down on oneself. This distress is painful and costly for both employers and employees.”

Even prior to the turmoil caused by the pandemic and civil unrest, a study from the United Kingdom’s Institute of Occupational Safety and Health estimated that mental health issues cost UK businesses £42 billion ($58 billion) in lost productivity. Despite the costs, the same report found that 57 percent of people responding to the survey said their businesses offered no mental health or wellbeing training or support for managerial staff. Of the 43 percent that have some training, almost 80 percent reported that the training was not mandatory.

Just to pile on a little more, 80 percent of those surveyed said they would be reluctant to discuss their mental health with their manager. In an ASIS webinar in May, “Managing Better Conversations for Wellbeing,” Heather Beach, founder and director of the Healthy Work Company, said employers have a duty to their employees to do better.

“Quite often managers are promoted because they’re very good technically at the job,” Beach said. “They’re not necessarily the best, empathetic people managers.”

Beach said the context of this work duty does not just include severe mental health diseases, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or post traumatic stress disorder. It includes mental health issues that all of us experience. No human is immune to anxiety, stress, depression, or a host of other issues that can affect how people function, both professionally and personally. As the statistics above indicate, this is an especially acute time, one where managers—even ones with weak empathic ability—need to be sharp to ensure their teams are functioning well.

The good news is, as a manager you are not expected to be a caregiver.

“All you’re expected to do is to notice that someone is struggling and have that conversation with them,” Beach said, “to support them, to empathize, and to normalize, and to signpost them to get further support.”

The NSC gives four recommendations for addressing employee mental health and distress:

  • Understand how workplace conditions and culture can impact employee mental health and, in some cases, create or enhance employee mental distress.
  • Ensure leaders, managers, and supervisors prioritize employee mental health and wellbeing; work to prevent mental distress; and support employees who experience it.
  • Ensure human resources develops robust, compassionate, and clear policies, programs, and procedures to prevent mental distress and support employees.
  • Provide employee education and increasing awareness on mental wellbeing and distress, as well as awareness of workplace resources, support, and policies.

“While understanding the impact of worker wellbeing on the bottom line is a critical motivator for organizations, we must be careful to not lose sight of the humanity of this issue," the NSC report said. "At the end of the day, we are all employees. We have all experienced unprecedented stress and distress over the past year.”

Going from the organizational level to the individual level, in the ASIS webinar, Beach gives guidance for managers. She calls it the A-B-C-D approach. Here’s a quick look at each component.

A – Ask

Managers who want to be in tune with the mental health of their staffs—all managers should aspire to this if they want to foster a high-performing team—need to be constantly aware. Managers need to be able to recognize behavioral changes. Did an employee who left at 5:00 p.m. on the dot every day suddenly begin staying later? Did someone who generally has an impeccable appearance show up to work a couple of times with a disheveled uniform? Has a generally passive employee become more assertive?

And when you notice something, ask about it. “Don’t wait for the perfect moment,” she said. “Especially now. There is no perfect moment is there? You might want to react quickly.”

And, importantly, ask twice. Often the reflexive answer is that everything is fine, but if you ask twice, you are giving them permission to go beyond the expected answer.

B – Be Present

If the ask leads to a conversation, it’s time for managers to turn on the active listening skills. Humans are horrible listeners. In general, we hear a few thoughts and our minds begin racing, filling in all the spaces between the words the other person is saying with our own thoughts, suggestions, judgments, and—the worst—anything that we think makes us look smart or powerful. And then we can’t wait to share these insights and we have quickly turned from trying to understand the person to whom we’re supposed to be listening to thinking about how best to say back what we want to say.

Beach proposed that doubling down on active listening approaches is imperative in such situations. After all, as a manager you’ve done the hard work of initiating a conversation. It would be shame to wreck it.

Instead, summarize what they are saying using their words. Ask clarifying, open-ended questions to continue the dialog and improve your own understanding. Use and respect silence to encourage additional sharing.

C – Create a Plan

The most important part of creating a plan in this context is that managers create a plan with the employee, not for the employee. In fact, the more the employee develops his or her own plan, the better. Remember the earlier statement from Beach: Managers are not expected to be psychologists, therapists, or parents. A manager’s job is to support, to empathize, to normalize, and to help find or suggest additional support.

D – Duty

Organizations have a duty to their employees. When managers engage employees in conversations about their wellbeing, Beach reminded that managers must remember their role in this. They are agents of the organization. That does not mean that managers do not also share the best interests of the employee. Quite the opposite, in fact, employees are also part of the organization. However, this dual role needs to be a factor in their conversations. Managers should not be promising confidentiality, for example. And managers should also document these conversations, even if it is in the form of contemporaneous notes that are not shared with anyone else.

The goal is for managers to spot any issues quickly. It’s true in so many situations: an early intervention can keep a minor issue from becoming a major obstacle. And that’s often true with the mental wellbeing of employees.