Layoffs, return-to-office battles and concerns over artificial intelligence replacing jobs have elevated employee stress levels, exposing a troubling workplace deficiency: Very few managers know how to deal appropriately with workers’ mental health concerns.
Nine out of 10 U.S. adults believe that the country is facing a mental health crisis, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. While workplaces usually have basic guidelines for managers on how to address issues like worker anxiety and depression, few have guardrails in place so they know what not to say. That leads to what experts say are haphazard attempts by bosses to air mental health struggles in the workplace, which, though well-meaning, may increase strains on workers. More than seven in 10 employees polled by professional network Fishbowl said they’re not comfortable discussing their mental health needs and challenges with their managers.
“Managers are lost,” said Christina McCarthy, executive director at One Mind at Work, a mental health nonprofit. “Those who are on the frontlines, the middle managers, are fundamentally ill-equipped.”
Spurred by the pandemic-fueled spike in mental health issues among workers, organizations have responded with increased awareness and investment. With long-held stigmas easing, once-guarded business leaders now speak honestly about the challenges they’ve faced. Two out of three CEOs said they talk about their mental health in the workplace, according to a survey last year by Headspace Health, up from just one in three who said so in 2020. But that doesn’t mean they’re doing so appropriately.
Companies and their leaders have been trying to find the right approach to workplace mental health for years. In 2015, a corporate consultant named Mike Robbins did a TED talk titled “Bring Your Whole Self to Work,” positing that the key to success was bringing “all of who we are” to an organization, including our “fears, doubts and insecurities.” His speech built on earlier work by researcher Brené Brown, who has highlighted the “power of vulnerability.”
But as these new-age leadership approaches have gained traction, employees have begun to gripe on workplace blogs about managers encouraging workers to bare their souls before budget meetings. One even set up a “condolence corner” during team calls, where staffers were expected to open up about a recent misfortune, like the death of a parent.
“Managers are not therapists — it’s a liability,” McCarthy said. “Most organizations would be concerned if they heard their managers were acting in this way because of the potential for unintended consequences.”
Melanie Naranjo, vice president of people at Ethena, a training platform, recalls having a boss early in the pandemic who wanted her to talk about things she’d rather keep private.
“Employees want to know managers care about their well-being and their success,” she said. “That does not mean saying, ‘Hey, I struggle with depression. I’d like to open it up and see who else has!'”
Leaders who do that are like “psychological vampires,” according to James Pratt, a former human resources executive who has grappled with bipolar disorder. “They feed off everyone else’s pain, and people can get profoundly hurt by it.”
Training helps, and is more prevalent nowadays, but only goes so far, experts say. “It’s just click the box and move on,” said Bernie Wong, senior manager of insights and principal at Mind Share Partners, a mental health nonprofit. The best advice experts have for a layperson pulled into a co-workers’ problems: listen and guide them to the appropriate source of assistance.
Employers are trying to improve. KPMG, the tax and audit giant, is piloting a program in which managers call and test out the firm’s employee-assistance program (EAP), a confidential service that connects employees to mental health resources. In doing so, they gain a better understanding of how the process works when an employee really does need help.
“If somebody came to us and was bleeding, we would not ask just anybody to be a doctor,” said Jason LaRue, who oversees KPMG’s benefits and wellbeing plans as U.S. total rewards leader. “You steer them to the help they need.”
One concern is that mental health resources might fall prey to cost-cutting campaigns that continue to gain steam across the economy. Just 25 percent of employees surveyed by Headspace Health last year said that their companies have kept up their focus on the issue as the pandemic has waned. That would be unwise, said Wong, of Mind Share Partners.
“In downturns, when employers feel they need to tighten belts, that’s when employees are looking for support the most,” he said.