When one of your direct reports has the courage to talk with you about their mental health condition, how you respond is critical. You want the person to know you appreciate them sharing while also reassuring them that their job and your perception of them are not at risk. At the same time, you need to figure out what impact, if any, this will have on your team and their workload. What do you say right away? What questions do you ask? How do you decide what accommodations, if any, to make?
Therefore, how you handle these interactions is critical. The good news is that these can be productive conversations, as long as you follow a few pieces of advice.
- Thank them for telling you. Start off by acknowledging the effort it took for the employee to tell you. If nothing else happens in the first conversation, be sure to thank the person for sharing, But don’t make it a big deal. Your goal should be to normalize the topic as much as possible.
- Give the person space to say what they want to say and tell you what they need in terms of flexibility or accommodations. Listen actively with an open mind and without judgment. Pay attention to your nonverbal cues.
- Tell them you want to support them — but don’t overpromise. It can be tempting to tell the person (especially if they’re a high performer) that you’ll do whatever it takes to support them, but you want to tread carefully. It may be that they’re just telling you as an FYI, and they don’t need you to make any adjustments to their workload or schedule. Don’t make assumptions.
- Don’t make it about you. It’s possible that you or someone you’re close with has been through something similar, but don’t focus the conversation on you. Keep in mind that “everyone is different in terms of how their condition shows up. My anxiety is different from another person’s anxiety,”
- Maintain confidentiality. Reassure the employee that you will make every effort to honor confidentiality but that you may need to speak with HR. In some cases, the employee may give you permission or even ask you to let others know.
- Consider what changes you can make. There is a variety of things that your employee may want or need so that they can take care of their mental health. These might include keeping different hours, working alone or in a group, taking time off to see a doctor, or having occasional “mental health” days.
- Ask for help from others. This person came to you because you’re their manager. “It’s not your role to be their therapist, doctor, or lawyer,” says Greenwood. Don’t offer health or legal advice. And don’t try to figure this out on your own.
- Refer them to other resources, if available. There may be other resources inside your company that you can refer them to. You can also direct them to any mental health benefits that your company offers, such as therapy or meditation apps.
- Make yourself “tell-able”. Ideally, we’d all work for a manager whom we felt comfortable talking to when we needed help balancing work with our mental health. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. But you can make it more likely that people will come to you by being a role model.
Gallo, A. (2021, February). When Your Employee Discloses a Mental Health Condition. Harvard Business Review.