Workplace Mental Health: 4 Important Ways Leaders Can Successfully Engage with Employees

By Diane Faulkner

Talking about mental health in the workplace requires the right balance of compassion and competence. Learn how being effective and empathetic can benefit all.

Talking about mental health is tricky at best — and in the workplace, it can be downright terrifying. One inadvertent comment can bring the full weight of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) down on you. Yet, you, as a leader, must find a way to address mental health issues.

Workplace Mental Health Problems Are Not New, They’re Just More Visible

Even before the pandemic hit, stress, burnout, depression, anxiety and a host of other mental health disorders were part of the office zeitgeist. Post-pandemic, however, the issue of how to address mental health in the workplace is front and center.

Many people have had a wonderful experience working from home and actually prefer the arrangement. For some, however, the loneliness of working from home has exacerbated major depressive disorder; for others, over three years of remote work has aggravated anxiety disorders. The idea of returning to an office has stress levels bouncing back to pre-pandemic levels for those who found and become accustomed to a new balance in their remote situation.

While the mental cost to employees seems great, the cost to business is equally so.

Mental Health Costs Add Up Quickly

No matter what the trigger point is, leaders must deal with mental health in the workplace more now than ever before. A 2023 study by ResumeLab, “Mind Matters: Exploring Mental Health at Work,” reveals that two-thirds of respondents have experienced work-induced mental health problems in the past two years. Sixty-eight percent have taken time off because of a mental health condition.

The cost of all that absenteeism adds up fast. Gallup reports that “generalized across the U.S. workforce, this missed work is estimated to have cost the economy $47.6 billion annually in lost productivity.” That equates to an estimated $340 per day for full-time workers and $170 per day for part-time workers.

With such a high percentage of workers experiencing mental health issues and businesses being affected not only by missed work but also by poor performance due to conditions that affect concentration and focus, how can you manage effectively, compassionately — and stay out of court?

The Conversation Needs to Change: 4 Ways to Do It

The stigma surrounding mental health has definitely changed, according to communication and business culture innovation expert Barbara Morris-Blake, founder and CEO of Elevate Organizations. While conversation is much more open, she says, the way leaders talk about mental health must continue to evolve.

“If you’re a leader of an organization, you need to normalize the conversation around mental health,” Morris-Blake says. “Talk about mental health in the same way you would talk about physical health. You’re taking a holistic point of view of the employee.”

1. Honor Privacy and Respect When Discussing Mental Health

When you’re talking to an employee about a mental health issue, it’s generally because you’ve noticed a change in behavior that led to a drop in productivity or a rise in tardiness or absenteeism. You may not initially know it’s because of a mental health issue because the employee may not have disclosed any condition to you.

The ResumeLab study shows that 68% of respondents feel that disclosing a mental health condition would harm their professional reputation. In addition, “59% believe their mental health condition hinders their career advancement.” It’s no wonder so many workers neglect to reveal their condition.

If you suspect an employee is experiencing stress or another condition affecting their work or attendance, you can broach the subject, albeit in a roundabout, delicate way, says Morris-Blake. Start by saying, ‘You know, you’re so valuable,’ to give them comfort at the beginning of the conversation. Next, let them know the pattern you’re seeing and ask, ‘What can I do to help you?’

“It’s also quite acceptable for a leader to open up the conversation by sharing their own experience,” she says.

2. Prioritize Compliance in Employee Conversations

Make sure you’re not assuming an employee has a mental health condition. “You can’t push someone to tell you they’re struggling,” says Morris-Blake. You can, however, try to discern if something is going on with them so you can join in the interactive process to determine if an accommodation is needed.

Legal issues can arise when a leader is untrained to identify if a problem is mental health-related and an accommodation is required. David Miklas, employment attorney and owner of Florida-based Miklas Employment Law, LLC, says the typical problems are “ones where someone may have some type of reaction or medication change that perhaps causes them to be tardy or have some absenteeism.”

Normally, you’d be able to discipline an employee in such cases, but as Miklas explains, “If the employee alerts the employer that it’s because of a change in their medication, that should immediately trigger within the manager the thought that ‘This sounds like a request for a reasonable accommodation [under the ADA].'”

It’s not uncommon, especially in small businesses in which a manager doesn’t have adequate training, or there is no human resource professional on staff, for a manager to discipline an employee or reject a request outright without engaging in the interactive process.

You also have to be careful not to make or allow declarations like, ‘I can’t trust Bob because he has schizophrenia, or because he has bipolar disorder,’ which can lead to adverse actions like termination, says Miklas.

“Even if the employer might have a legitimate argument that [the person] is a direct threat, which sometimes it is,” Miklas says, “that still requires the employer to engage in an interactive process with the employee to determine whether there is a reasonable accommodation that can be provided.”

3. Navigate Conversations About Medication Carefully

The ADA regulates disability-related inquiries or medical examinations. An employer can still make one of those inquiries or examinations if it’s job-related and consistent with business necessity.

“For that to happen,” says Miklas, “the employer would have to have a reasonable belief based on objective evidence that the employee’s ability to perform an essential function would be impaired by a medical condition, or an employee will pose a direct threat due to the condition.”

In those cases, Miklas says, it can be appropriate for an employer to ask, ‘Hey, are you taking a new medication?’ or ‘Have you stopped taking your medication? What are the side effects?’ Then, you can enter the interactive process to see if there is an accommodation you can make.

If the employee never puts you on notice (either directly or indirectly) and hasn’t asked for an accommodation, then your obligation under ADA is never triggered, and you can discipline as you would any other employee.

4. Cultivate an Emotionally Safe Environment

The way in which you communicate dictates the kind of environment you create. Fifty-eight percent of the ResumeLab respondents claim they feel mentally or emotionally unsafe in the workplace.

Put a premium on listening and attending to employee behavior so that when it changes, you can present an open forum for them to discuss what’s going on. Be clear that your intention is to help and that you value your employee. Listen for overall themes, such as social isolation, and don’t get bogged down in details, which can distract you from the big picture. And don’t try to solve their problems; instead, gather enough information to know if you can help — then try your best to do so.

Want to take these important conversations further? Let’s chat about workplace wellness here.

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About the Author

Diane Faulkner is a ghostwriter, editor, content marketing strategist, and content writer based in North Florida. For over 20 years, she has written for clients such as Forbes, LegalZoom, Delta Dental, American Express, ADP, Guidewell, Omada Health, Mentavi Health, and many others.