Photo courtesy of Oleg Magni
InHerSight asked Amy Robertson, a CEO who provides HR consulting services, to weigh in on her passion, which is mental health, and how companies, managers, and employees can navigate it at work. These are her answers, in her own words. Are you a recruiter with job advice to share? Email our managing editor Beth Castle at email@example.com for consideration.
What’s your elevator pitch?
I’m the CEO and founder of Soul Advantage, LLC, where I provide fractional HR executive and strategic HR consulting services to growing companies or companies going through significant change. I’ve spent much of my career as a senior leader at global technology companies, focused on employment branding and culture, leadership best practices, mergers and acquisition strategy and integration, total rewards strategy, and HR operations. Before I took my first job out of college at an actuarial consulting company, my childhood dream jobs included being a check-out attendant at the local grocery store, a concert pianist or a comedy writer for Saturday Night Live. The SNL gig is still my dream job.
I’m passionate about mental health and volunteer as a trainer, coach, and coordinator for education classes that focus on parents and caregivers of adolescents going through mental health struggles.
Talk about mental health in terms of diversity and inclusion. What needs to change in order to make our workplaces more accommodating of mental health?
The facts are that one in five adults in the United States experience mental illness. And 17 percent of youth between the ages of 6 and 17 years experience a mental health disorder. Think about the people you work closely with at your company—if you are not directly impacted, your coworkers are. This means that your teammates are coming into the workplace every day dealing with some heavy burdens that may distract them or prevent them from operating at their best.
I think many companies still view their leaders as risk managers instead of empathetic coaches who know how to motivate and inspire the best in people. The best thing a company can do is invest in the right people managers and reinforce a trusting relationship with employees. We all know the manager role is important in helping employees map their career and their happiness at work. But I believe the best managers are also responsible for enabling the employee to conquer day-to-day challenges, both professional and personal. The manager must build a strong and supportive relationship with each employee and be emotionally aware when their employees need extra support.
The modern manager embraces their own vulnerability and the vulnerability of their workers. Being a great manager during an emotionally or mentally tough time doesn’t mean you have to know all of the facts, but being able to recognize the situation is critical. When I was living through an extended crisis in my own family, my manager didn’t pry, but she said this to me, I’m here when you need me. I will listen if you need an ear. Please tell me what I can do to support you best during this time?
Even though she didn’t have all the details of what my family was experiencing, she knew enough to create a space for me to process. Her support meant the world to me. The most successful companies will hold their managers accountable for working this way and train them to do it.
What are some practical steps employees, managers, and companies can take to navigate mental health in the workplace?
To start, just talk about it. The easiest first step is to sponsor a book club or a lunch-and-learn where employees at all levels can start having the conversation. Book clubs are a great way to hold purposeful discussions with the added benefit of building community. The last book club I sponsored focused on crisis and resilience, and I used my own family mental health experience to start the discussion. You’ll be amazed at how many people are waiting for a safe place to expose their challenges and how thankful they are to have a community of people to which they can share.
Provide resources, local and national. Make it a priority to share these with your workforce so they know where to go for information. If you have an employee assistance program, ask them to help educate managers and employees on how to use the benefit. If you don’t, ask your health provider to come in and do a targeted discussion on the mental health benefits your health plan provides.
Begin to take a look at your employee programs, like time-off practices, paid time off, or sick leave. Do they encourage rest, recharging, and recuperation? Do they allow for flexibility? If you have workplace norms that include working or checking messages while on leave or outside office hours, start thinking about why that is and if it’s absolutely necessary to your business success. What would you change to encourage a healthier approach?
What are some innovative approaches you’ve seen companies taking to mental health?
Here are a few programs and approaches:
Time off that really means time off. No expectation of checking emails on vacation or working while you are not feeling well. It’s meant to recharge you for your next professional sprint.
On-site health clinics that include individual and family counseling (not just treatment for a common cold or strep throat).
Workplaces that emphasize autonomy and asynchronous communication. This will honor each person’s ability to work in a way that’s best for them and enable the most success.
Wellbeing programs that offer classes within the workplace on stress management, time management, and mindfulness. These provide a holistic view of wellness and coping techniques to avoid triggers for anxiety and depression.
Companies who value and encourage activities outside work. For example, encourage hobbies and celebrate them within the workplace by sponsoring get-togethers on the topic. Employees can share more of what makes them interesting and, in turn, create a stronger fabric of community within the workplace.
What should women be asking recruiters or hiring managers in order to better understand mental health benefits and culture at prospective companies?
Women should be confirming the corporate values align with their own personal values. Ask for examples of how the values show up in the workplace, specifically in how leaders manage their teams and how the CEO and senior leadership communicate and set expectations. Do they talk about how to achieve the goals in addition to the what? Also, dig into paid time off policies and programs that encourage exploration of self and creativity and how growth and development plans are curated. I’d also pry into how managers deal with exiting employees. You can learn a lot about the integrity of a company by the way they treat people on their way out the door.
Say an employee has a mental health concern. What should a manager do to support that employee?
Managers should be aware of the company-sponsored benefits in place for mental wellbeing and have a trusted human resources team member as a guide. Don’t wait for a specific incident to research how to support. Go ahead and discuss what’s available now. Be proactive.
Oftentimes, a mental health struggle manifests itself in poor or mediocre performance or changes in behavior. Managers have the difficult task to differentiate when a typically solid-performing employee has a dip in output or quality and take notice of any patterns and symptoms. Don’t be afraid to address it. When I’ve noticed a change in behavior or performance with my employees, I have typically started with these simple questions: How are you doing? I’ve noticed you struggling with x,y, or z project. What can I do to help? Is there anything in particular you feel is distracting you from this project?
Be ready to offer flexibility, resources, clarity, or prioritization on deliverables. Don’t wait to discuss. Many people with mental health struggles feel the stigma of the disease, so the more we can do to be open to a discussion, the better.
What are some ways people with mental health concerns can comfortably advocate for themselves in the workplace?
First, take steps to evaluate the current state of mental health awareness within your company by observing behaviors,understanding current benefits, sharing facts, and prompting discussions. Once you know how educated (or uneducated) your workplace is, create a recommended approach for taking action. I always like to see 1) quick wins, 2) short-term, and 3) long-term goals when I am part of these initiatives. Find a trusted executive sponsor to partner with you on the strategy and approach. This will help align to company voice and norms and have an influencer within the company who will be your mentor for success. Not only will you be advocating for all employees when you lead this project, but you will also be advocating for yourself.
If you are not ready to lead the (r)evolution at your company, but you are ready to approach a conversation with your manager, I’d start by setting a future date with context. No manager likes being surprised, so bring it up in your next 1:1 and tell them you’d like to have a dedicated discussion about your working environment and what fuels (and inhibits) your success.
When you meet, only share information about your diagnosis that you feel comfortable with, and provide clear examples of how your condition typically presents itself in your working life. For example, if you experience tremendous anxiety when asked to respond to a question in a public or team setting, say so. And perhaps suggest that if audience participation is expected, you’d do a better job at contributing if you can get the question beforehand and prepare.
The main objective with this discussion is to create a shared understanding and open dialogue about what circumstances create your best work. Every effective leader wants to know that, so focus less on the diagnosis and more on what you need to be successful on your best day.
If you decide you aren’t ready to discuss your diagnosis or specific health struggles, that’s okay.
Approach it in a different way. Answer and discuss these questions, and encourage your manager to share their answers. I promise, it will lead to a productive discussion.
What gives you energy?
What zaps your energy?
What do you need in the workplace to keep your energy up?
What do you need outside of work to recharge?