How Managers Can Discuss Mental Health With Employees
Mental health isn’t the easiest topic to address in the workplace. But since the outset of the pandemic, the need to talk about and support mental health has grown. As people continue to struggle with their new normals, more companies are acknowledging employee well-being can’t be taken for granted. In fact, according to the 2021 Learning Trends Report, skills related to mental health and wellness were among the most consumed topics over the last year.
“Everyone who has a brain has mental health,” says Udemy instructor and Harvard Business Review contributor Deborah Grayson Riegel. And this means that many of us have mental health struggles. This is why Deborah believes we must continue to normalize conversations about mental health even as we return to the office.
People managers need to be part of mental health conversations in the workplace. It’s time to remove the shame and secrecy that once corresponded with these subjects. When managers regularly discuss mental health with their employees, it signals that employees can bring their whole selves to work.
A framework called the Stress-APGAR can help managers broach these conversations.
Guide your mental health conversations with the Stress-APGAR framework
APGAR is a quick assessment given to newborns to gauge their health and how likely they are to need medical intervention. Harvard Business Review published a version of APGAR that’s adapted for adults, the Stress-APGAR. This framework is especially useful for normalizing conversations around mental health.
Managers should study the Stress-APGAR framework top of mind and weave the following talking points into conversations with direct reports. Over time, it will become just as easy as talking to a team member about their physical health.
1. A is for appearance
Pay attention to your team members’ physical appearances. Sure, we may have swapped sweatpants for business suits when we started working from home, but you’re looking for more significant changes. Does your colleague look like they haven’t been sleeping well, their posture is sunken, or they appear to be physically uncomfortable? If so, you can broach this topic with questions like:
- How are you keeping your energy up?
- How are you sleeping?
- What do you do to stay active?
2. P is for performance
Do your team members show any signs of mental distress in their performance? Keep an eye out for signs of cognitive impairment, like getting overwhelmed by information or not following a logical train of thought. You can discuss this with your colleagues by asking:
- How are you coping with your workload right now?
- What about work feels hard?
- What can I take off your plate?
3. G is for growth
Growth relates to a person’s sense of purpose or direction. If you hear your team member express sentiments like, “What are we even doing this for?” or “What’s the point of this?” they may be suffering in this area. Broach this topic by asking:
- What gives you purpose and meaning at the moment, both at work and outside of work?
- What are you learning these days?
4. A is for affect control
We all have good days and bad days, but keep an eye out for significant changes in your team members’ emotional states. Do they seem irritable, sad, or withdrawn? Are they more likely to have emotional outbursts than they were in the past? You can ask:
- What are your coping strategies?
- What’s most challenging for you to deal with?
- What makes you happy right now?
5. R is for relationships
Social relationships are a key to sustaining mental health. And during the pandemic, our social lives have suffered, so this may be harder to gauge. Signs to look out for include someone who seems less connected, socially isolated, and declines invitations more frequently than in the past. Check-in on social relationships by asking:
- Who is on your go-to list at work? At home?
- Who are you helping?
- Who is helping you?
Flip the script when it comes to mental health conversations
Many managers are hesitant to bring up mental health in the workplace because it feels awkward. That’s to be expected — these conversations won’t come naturally if you haven’t had them before. The good news is you’re not alone. Many people struggle with these conversations.
Instructor Deborah Grayson Riegel is here to help. She recognizes the difficulty of this subject and provides straightforward steps you can take to make mental health as easy to discuss as physical health. Learn more from Deborah in her course, Talking to Your Employees About Stress at Work.