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  1. Blog
  2. Management
  3. January 19, 2023

A Word-for-Word Guide to Discussing Mental Health with Direct Reports

What to say and why it’s important

Hands on a table holding coffee cups
Photo courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez

Following the lockdown during the pandemic, many companies began more heavily investing in employee mental health—but even with the world reopened, stress and anxiety remain high. 

An American Psychological Association (APA) study found more than a quarter of adults (27 percent) report that most days they are so stressed they can’t function. Plus, adults with a higher average stress level are more likely to report experiencing forgetfulness, an inability to concentrate, and difficulty making decisions.

When stress begins to permeate every aspect of an employee’s life, their performance at work can start to suffer. One way managers can help is by learning how to talk to their employees about mental health.

Amy Robertson, a human resources executive CEO and founder of Soul Advantage, says not only is providing mental health support the right thing to do, but it also leads to higher performance and productivity. “From a human perspective, taking care of your employees’ health leads to loyalty and engagement,” she says. “People want to feel their employer and manager cares for them just as much as the top and bottom line. Employers can help avoid costs related to recruiting, onboarding, and turnover by being authentically concerned for the health and welfare of all people.”

But when is the right time to bring up such a delicate topic? InHerSight data shows women are most comfortable providing feedback during 1:1s with their manager. So, here’s how to take advantage of the time during your 1:1 to normalize mental health check-ins with your direct reports. 

Read more: 28 Companies That Offer Mental Health Support Benefits

How to frame a mental health check-in

At work, it’s important for managers to check in with employees and gauge how they’re feeling about work and life in general. Leadership coach Adrienne Partridge recommends opening meetings with a simple, “How are you?” and welcoming honest responses by sharing what’s happening in your own life. Beyond team meetings, 1:1s are the perfect time to engage deeper with your reports.

But keep in mind—not everyone has the same level of comfort when it comes to discussing mental health. 

If you plan on having an in-depth conversation about mental health, it’s courteous to give your reports a heads up beforehand that you plan to check in with them about how they’re doing. Reassure them you’re having this conversation because you care about them, not because you’re singling them out for performance issues.

You can ease into the conversation by acknowledging the topic can be uncomfortable or even taboo. Management expert Deborah Grayson Riegel suggests breaking the ice with something along the lines of:
“I want to talk to you about something that may feel a little awkward, but I’m going to embrace the awkwardness, because I care about you.”
In 1:1s, it’s extremely important to build positive rapport and mutual respect. As the manager, you have the upper hand in steering where the conversation goes. You can set the tone by offering an anecdote related to your mental health first, creating a sense of trust and psychological safety. For example, you can say something like:
“I’ve felt a little out of my depth lately with this new production project. I feel like I’m struggling to keep up my other tasks on top of managing the project expectations. How have you been feeling throughout the process?”
If your direct report asks how you're doing first, try to be honest. If you can, share how you’re taking care of yourself. For example, you could say:
“Recently, I’ve been dealing with a lot of stress and anxiety at work. Something that’s really helped me is scheduling at least a 45-minute break in my day to disconnect, have a snack, and get outside.”

Remember your response doesn’t have to be tied to work. If something else is affecting you outside of the workplace, you can give a brief response about it. Just don’t overshare or get too personal to the point that your direct report is uncomfortable. 

During the check in, let your employee know they don’t have to discuss anything they feel uncomfortable sharing. Riegel suggests framing it this way: “I’m asking this because I care about you, but you absolutely don’t have to answer. I don’t want to pry—just know I’m happy to talk about anything you want to talk about.”

If you suspect something might be up but they consistently say that everything is fine or change the subject, it’s time to stop bringing it up. Riegel says you can leave the ball in their court: “I want you to know I care about you, and you can bring anything to me—whether it’s work- or not work-related—but I also don’t want to be intrusive. Would you like me to stop asking?”

Read more: The Direct Report Relationship: How Managers Can Grow Employees & Build Trust

How to respond when your employee comes to you with a mental health issue

In the event that one of your employees has the courage to talk with you about their mental health, how you respond is crucial. Regardless of how informally you normally communicate, now is not the time to lighten the mood with jokes. You should thank them for sharing, reassure them that their job is not at risk, and if necessary, figure out what impact this could have on their team and workload. 

Your report may have had to overcome a lot of anxiety in order to broach this subject with you. Be patient, and allow them the time and space to say whatever they want to say. Let them lead the conversation at first, and refrain from asking a ton of personal questions. For example, if they say they’ve been diagnosed with depression, it’s not vital for you to know how long they’ve been depressed or if they’re taking medication. Simply thank them for coming to you.

Don’t make any assumptions. They may be sharing what’s going on in their life simply as a heads up in case you notice something is a little off, or they may ask for time off or changes to their schedule if they’re experiencing performance issues. Assure them that you’ll do your best to work with them and find an appropriate solution in terms of flexibility or accommodations. 

During your 1:1, keep the conversation focused on your report. Perhaps you or someone you know has been through something similar to them, and you want to offer an anecdote. Use your discretion, but if it’s not entirely relevant, try not to focus the spotlight on your own personal stories. With that said, as a leader, it’s important to be open about mental health when it is appropriate, as to normalize talking about mental health in the workplace. 

If there’s a chance you might need to speak with someone in human resources (HR) about what’s going on, let your employee know. If they’re wary of anyone else knowing, you can say something like:
“I want to honor your confidentiality, but there’s a possibility I might eventually have to tell HR. I can speak generally without naming you at first, and I’ll let you know ASAP if I’ll have to give your name.” 

Kelly Greenwood, founder and CEO of Mind Share Partners, a nonprofit that focuses on changing the culture of workplace mental health, says it can be helpful to explain to the employee why you might have to tell HR, like ensuring that the employee gets any legal protections they’re entitled to in order to avoid discrimination.

Towards the end of the conversation, try to point them to any available company resources, accommodations, or benefits, such as flexible hours, paid time off, childcare options, mental health days, employee resource groups, employee assistance programs, counseling services, mental health app subscriptions, and more. 

Whether they’ve been formally diagnosed with a mental illness or they’ve been feeling slightly more anxious recently, it’s imperative that you take their concerns seriously and act with the utmost professionalism. You never know how far kindness and empathy will go in helping someone to feel better. 

Read more: Mental Health Tips & Resources for LGBTQ+ Employees

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