How supervisors can overcome their own prejudices to better support employees mental health
More workers have been experiencing mental health difficulties and talking about them at work since the pandemic began. The result is that more bosses will be aware of how their employees are feeling emotionally. The question of how managers can make fair decisions after an employee discloses a mental health challenge is important, as the insight is useful in providing support.
It’s against the law to treat workers differently due to their physical or mental health. Managers should check in on their teams regularly to make sure that stigma isn’t influencing their day-to-day decisions, even if HR can ensure the right supports are in place.
At Mind Share Partners, we assist industry leaders in establishing mentally healthy work cultures, one of the cornerstones of which is an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing mental health issues without fear of retaliation from management. Four ways managers can ensure they are treating employees with mental health challenges fairly are outlined below.
Recognize the bias you hold.
The first thing you should do is think about what you already know and have experienced in terms of mental health issues. Counselor and member of Mind Share Partners’ advisory council Megan Rogers recommends “start by recognising and acknowledging that you as a manager probably will have bias, instead of ignoring it.”
Thinking back on your own experiences with mental health is one approach. What kind of personal or interpersonal experiences with mental health do you or those close to you have had? If so, please explain how this experience has changed your perspective on mental health in general or a specific diagnosis. Improving your awareness of your own biases as a manager can be facilitated by learning more about mental health and identity.
Professor of Management and Strategy at Hong Kong University Bonnie Hayden Cheng suggests another method for verifying our hypotheses. “Switch things around to test your prejudices on the spot. To do this, put yourself in the other person’s shoes by wondering, “What if this were a member of my own family?”
In conclusion, it’s crucial for a manager to keep in mind that there are, in fact, positive outcomes associated with some mental health experiences. For example, dealing with my own postpartum depression has made me a more compassionate and self-aware person. Some of my coworkers’ most valuable personal and professional qualities, like connection and drive, were honed by overcoming personal mental health difficulties. While these benefits are no substitute for addressing the underlying causes of mental health issues, they do help managers reframe and reduce negative bias when making decisions about employees.
Take the lead with your questions.
It’s easy to be quick to judge or offer solutions if an employee discloses or you suspect they have mental health issues. Use compassion and interest as conversation starters instead. For instance, you could begin by asking, “I’ve noticed that you haven’t been as engaged in meetings as usual. I’m fine; how about you? Alternatively, you could say something like, “I know you’ve mentioned this time of year is difficult for you. Please tell us how we can help.
Instead of asking, “Can they do this thing?” when deciding on a person for a specific role or project, consider, “How could they be successful in doing this thing?” For example, if an employee discloses that they are anxious, you shouldn’t automatically rule out the possibility of them taking on challenging tasks or positions of leadership. Think instead about what help they might need in order to complete the task at hand. Licensed marriage and family therapist and Mind Share Partners advisor Christine Coleman warns that it is not always possible to draw a causal link between mental health issues and changes in performance on the job. “As our capacity for empathy develops, we can take care to avoid assigning causality to a single cause, such as a mental health issue. Until we make an effort to get to know the whole person, we won’t know.
Curiosity as a form of leadership can help you achieve your personal and team goals. Managers should keep in mind, as Rogers puts it, “as a manager, part of my job is to manage the success of the company, and it is also a part of my job to manage and take care of the people within that company.” Rogers argues that we should not view these tasks as competing, but rather as complementary. The manager or the company would be doing themselves a disservice by not backing this employee, she says. You can learn more about someone’s true emotions and motivations for their actions if you approach the situation from a place of genuine curiosity.
Use a team approach to solving.
The worker themselves are your best source of information; nobody can tell you more about the effects of mental health on the job than the person experiencing them. According to Cheng, “a one-size-fits-all approach does not work” because “everyone is struggling differently and at different times.”
You can have fruitful conversations about how mental health affects an individual worker if you have established trust with that worker. While staying at work may help some people cope with mental health issues, doing so may be counterproductive for others. If you’re facing a problem at work, Coleman suggests saying something like, “I’m curious about how this challenge impacts your work and what I and the team can do to support you through that.”
In a perfect world, an employee, their supervisor, and human resources would all work together to find a workable solution. Every person has a unique set of requirements, every manager has an understanding of what their team needs, and human resources knows what the company can provide and how to prevent bias. This team should think of a wide variety of modifications and adjustments, and be aware that the process may require some trial and error.
Make it a priority to foster a safe and supportive environment for everyone on the team.
Fighting stigma against mental health requires ongoing efforts. Managers can proactively foster a setting where discussions of mental health are encouraged and tolerated. Managers can do this in a variety of ways, one of the most powerful being through the telling of personal stories. Managers can pave the way for employees to talk about their problems by showing vulnerability themselves.
Managers also have the ability to foster a cooperative atmosphere in the workplace. Methods for achieving this goal include providing venues for open communication, praising and rewarding team efforts, and setting an example of cooperative conduct. According to Cheng’s findings, positive relationships among workers increased the likelihood that those experiencing anxiety would receive support from their coworkers rather than being shunned. There are “broader repercussions” for fostering positive workplace cultures as a result of this study, she explains.