How managers can help employees with mental health issues

If you're a manager, the task of spotting and helping employees who are struggling with depression, anxiety or other mental health disorders could fall to you.

(CNN) -- It likely wasn't in your job description when you were hired. But if you're a manager, the task of spotting and helping employees who are struggling with depression, anxiety or other mental health disorders could fall to you.

It's probably not something you were trained to do. Only one quarter of mid-sized and large employers say they train and coach managers to identify emotional health issues among employees, according to a 2019 survey by consulting firm Willis Towers Watson.

Yet more than 60% say they may start doing so by next year, the survey showed.

If you suspect one of your employees may be having trouble, here are some ways to approach the person in a respectful and productive way.

Look for signs

When you start noticing signs that someone on your team is not herself, don't assume she'll come to you to let you know what's going on.

Only about 20% of employees say they are completely comfortable discussing mental health issues at work, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA).

"People fear judgment and worry that it could affect their careers," said Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health at the APA Foundation.

Not performing as well as usual -- perhaps through loss of concentration or exhaustion -- is one indication that an employee may be experiencing duress as a result of depression or anxiety.

But performance doesn't necessarily have to be affected. In fact, a person suffering from depression may let their health and relationships go before letting it affect their job, said Mary Ann Baynton, a consultant on employee mental health issues and a director at Workplace Strategies for Mental Health.

Other signs of distress: An employee may become more negative and sarcastic than usual, or get frustrated more easily. Or he may start to look haggard and disheveled.

Whatever strikes you as off is worth noting.

Reach out, but don't assume a diagnosis

"The most important thing is to talk about changes you see. But don't suggest a diagnosis. Instead you can say, 'You don't seem like yourself. Are you ok? You're a valued employee and I care about you. Let me better understand how I can be helpful because I really want to help you succeed,'" Gruttadaro said.

You can also remind the employee of any counseling services that might be available to them through the company, such as an employee assistance program or EAP.

Even if the employee still does not want to talk about what's wrong, "you've opened the door to that conversation," she added.

Dispel the stigma by making a connection

Managers also have an opportunity to dispel any concern about using an employee assistance program by test-driving it themselves, said Baynton.

"If you've never called that number, do it, so you can look employees in the eye and tell them about your experience with the service to reduce the stigma," she suggested.

"The more we talk about these things in the workplace, the more we can say people will struggle sometimes and this is what we do."

You also may be tempted to share a personal story of your own if the employee discloses his condition. Before doing that, though, consider why you want to share.

"If the reason is to say you know all about their experience (you don't) or to say it's not a big deal (it may be to them right now), then don't share," Baynton said. "If you have fully heard their perspective first and you want to validate their feelings with an experience you had, then go ahead."

When to stand down

If an employee says directly she doesn't want to discuss her situation or simply doesn't want to get help, you can back off, assuming the employee's performance has not been adversely affected, Gruttadaro said.

But do keep an eye on performance going forward, and follow up if you see changes. "Sometimes it takes time for people to accept that they may be experiencing a mental health issue, making it important to periodically check in," she said.

If you're in a situation where you're seeing major changes in an employee's behavior, mood or interactions with others, and those changes are making you uncomfortable, "that is a red flag to not approach the employee," Gruttadaro advised. "Instead you should consult with HR, describing what you're observing and seeking guidance on what to do."

For more on this issue, the insurer Canada Life has funded a free public online resource for managers dealing with employees' mental health concerns.

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.