A Managers Guide to Mental Health in the Workplace

In the 90’s, researchers at Cornell University had a question: can mood actually dictate performance? Can a feeling, more than just knowledge and training, change how your brain problem-solves at work?

They decided to put it to the test in one of the world’s most high-stress occupations—the medical field.

Before diagnosing a patient, researchers handed one group of doctors a bag of candy, while another group of doctors received nothing. The doctors that received the candy were found to more accurately—and more quickly—diagnose patients than the doctors that had not received candy. In fact, they were able to better put together the signs and symptoms that pointed to advanced liver disease than their peers in the study—a finding with big implications for doctors and patients alike.

This faster problem-solving and increased processing, or “the positive effect”, has implications for more than just the medical field. Managers aren’t strangers to the stress of running businesses and teams. All of us have our good and bad days at work. Life happens, and employees aren’t always going to be feeling their best every hour of every shift. In many cases, you may not be aware of what’s happening to all of your employees outside of work, and what they bring in to their shift with them each day.

But as the research shows, your employees’ well-being and how they’re feeling at work plays a vital role in their performance. Being in a positive mood can actually change how our brains work—for the better.

Put simply, how good you feel impacts how well you work. And that “how you feel” has a name: mental health.

So, what is mental health?

Mental health is defined by the World Health Organization as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” Being healthy isn’t only a physical state of being only determined by our blood pressure or diet. It’s determined by how we’re feeling emotionally too.

One in 5 Americans is affected by a mental health condition, but it’s only recently that mental health has become part of our public dialogue. Thanks to the rise of social media and online communities like self-care and #TalkingAboutIt, business leaders, popular entertainers, and every day people are coming forward and sharing their experiences living with mental health conditions. May is even now recognized as Mental Health Awareness Month.

However, even in today’s conversation, most employees still aren’t likely to discuss mental health with their managers—despite it being proven time and again to be vital to their workplace performance.

A 2017 workplace study found that:

  • 26% of adults who had taken a day off work because of a mental health problem reported lying about why they were out of the office.
  • 58% aren’t comfortable telling their boss if they were diagnosed with a mental health issue.
  • Just 20% believe their manager would be supportive of workers battling mental disorders, as they feared their employers wouldn’t take them seriously. 

How to talk about mental health at work

As the numbers show, many employees and managers don’t have an open dialogue about mental health or feel comfortable discussing it one-on-one. And there’s a reason for that too—as an employer, it’s important to know that many mental health conditions are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, it is “illegal for an employer to discriminate against you simply because you have a mental health condition. This includes firing you, rejecting you for a job or promotion, or forcing you to take leave.”

If employees have a mental health condition that could impact their work performance, they have a legal right to request “reasonable accommodation,” which can include the ability to schedule work around therapy and appointments, a quiet work environment, adjustments in management methods, and even permission to work from home.

Most importantly, under the ADA, employers are only allowed to ask employees medical questions (which include questions about mental health) in very limited scenarios, particularly if there’s “objective evidence” that an employee isn’t able to do their job or might pose a safety risk. And if your employees do share information with you about their mental health, that information legally must be kept confidential from other coworkers.

Talking about mental health at work can feel personally (and legally) intimidating. But just talking about mental health and raising awareness in the office doesn’t mean violating the ADA or kicking off a discrimination suit.

As a manager, it’s important to know how your team is feeling. Research shows that only about half of all employees are highly satisfied with their direct supervisors and that poor communication, lack of knowledge, and limited employee interaction is harming supervisor-employee relationships.

Instead, just having meaningful conversations with employees can boost your bottom line and lead to better employee engagement. In some cases, it can even lead to lower health care costs and decreased employee absences. It’s about creating a positive company culture where employees feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work and feel confident and supported when they raise issues impacting performance with their managers.

You aren’t expected to be a therapist, but bottom line: your employees should feel safe discussing mental health as it relates to their performance, as well as any requests for reasonable accommodation.

Try the emotional rating system

Still, mental health is hard to talk about. Where do you start? Sometimes, how we’re feeling is easier said with numbers than words. You’re likely used to being asked to rate how you’re feeling physically by your doctor on a scale of 1-10. But small business maven Jen Gotch, founder of the lifestyle, accessory and apparel brand Ban.do, has popularized an “emotional rating system” for checking in and seeing where you land emotionally on a scale of 1-10.

While Gotch regularly shares on social media about using the emotional rating system in her personal life, the approach can be replicated in your workplace just as easily.

Here’s how it works:

Check in with each member your team at the start of their first shift. Set aside 15 minutes to discuss any ongoing assignments or tasks. Then ask how they’re doing on a scale of 1-10. It’s not invasive and doesn’t require them to reveal personal details. It’s simply a “how are you” with numbers.

The range falls on a general low to high scale, while still allowing employees to be private about the meaning behind their rating. It’s a conversation-starter to help your employees quantify their answers, and to help them stop and think before automatically replying, “I’m fine.” After all, what does it really feel like to be a 6? An 8?

Not everyone feels like a 10 all the time, and that’s okay. The answer is going to be different for everyone, but you may start to notice a pattern or some common themes. The emotional rating system is an opportunity to surface any issues at the start of the week while getting a temperature read on your team as a whole. Is energy low across the group and everyone is coming in under a 5? Is there a larger issue that needs to be discussed and dealt with? Are they struggling to adjust to a recent work change that could take a closer look? Having trouble with a new schedule or feeling worn down by a lot of overtime?

Next week, do the same. Find out if your team’s still at the same number they gave last week, and note any patterns. An employee regularly reporting they’re at a 3 or 4 can be a beginning indicator of a more serious problem like burnout—a creeping issue that affects 44% of entry-level employees and can easily spread to the rest of the team.

And remember: per ADA laws, if you notice a change in work performance that signals an employee may be unable to do their job or may be a safety risk, and the change can be objectively tied to a medical issue, you’re now legally allowed to ask your employee for more information. Otherwise, they’re not obligated to disclose any more details.

What your employees want to share and how much they feel comfortable sharing is up to them. If they do want to discuss mental health needs, keep the focus positive—work together to find a solution that still allows them to complete their tasks and responsibilities while building in any reasonable accommodations.

Keep the conversation going

When it comes to employee well-being, the emotional rating system is just a first step in starting the conversation about mental health at work and creating a more supportive workplace culture. There are many great (and inexpensive) ways to make wellness a team effort and help your employees find some balance, particularly during busy seasons.

The more conversations you have, the more you can start to recognize and build on strategies to help your team work better. Make mental health awareness part of how you do business and make it visible. Update your employee attendance policy to address mental health or add one “no questions asked” sick day so that employees don’t feel embarrassed to say they need time off for mental health reasons. Participate in mental health first aid training. Or, take your own mental health day and be honest with your team about why you need the time.

A positive company culture starts at the top, and proving you’re focused on employees’ well-being and open to hard conversations can go a long way in setting an example for other employees to do the same. As a manager, you aren’t immune to stress and burnout, and being willing to show that you’re human and open about your own struggles can make a lasting positive impact on your team and business to come.

For more mental health resources for you and your team, check out the National Council for Behavioral Health, the National Institute of Mental Health, or find a Community Conversation on Mental Health near you.

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