If you are a line manager, dealing with workplace mental health is not always straightforward, especially if this isn’t something you have been exposed to personally. In this article I share with you how my line manager and I worked it out together and got the best possible result: full recovery and high performance, and the practical actions to take so you can achieve the same.
How my line manager and I worked it out together
How not to do it
The first time I had to speak to my line manager about mental health issues was terrifying. I was at my worst from a mental health perspective and I was being forced by my GP to speak to my manager because she wanted me to slow down at work.
I didn’t want to talk about it in the first place
I didn’t want to tell my manager that I was experiencing severe depression because I was worried about my career prospects. This was back in December 2014, long before the pandemic made it acceptable to talk about workplace mental health.
I was fortunate. My line manager was great. He listened. I shared with him that I had depression and that my GP recommended that I worked part-time while I was getting professional support, but that I was torn about this because there was so much work and well… I told him that I didn’t want the Chief Counsel or HR to know because I was worried I wouldn’t be seen fit to take on further responsbilities in the future.
Interestingly he reminded me that he had himself asked me to slow down a few times. For context, I was on an international assignment at the time, working 80 hours a week, when I was contracted to work 37 hours. My lifestyle back then, including this work pattern, was a huge contributor to me going into depression.
So he suggested that I did just my normal hours for a start, which would be part-time for me and allowed him to keep this betweeen us for now. He also said he didn’t know much about depression, having never experienced it himself or been exposed to it, so I had to tell him what I needed and that I could call him whenever I wanted, including outside of working hours.
He asked if I would agree to share this with the person whom I shared my office with, so that he knew someone in the buiding/country was looking out for me. So I did.
Here are the reasons why I now believe this was not the right way to handle this:
- I brought my boss all the problems with no solutions
- I waited for the last minute to speak to him – if I had spoken up earlier we could have worked it out earlier, saving me a lot of suffering
- I refused to involve people who were here to help
- I put all the pressure I had been feeling onto my line manager who took on the work I was not covering due to my ‘reduced’ hours
I realised where I had gone wrong a few months later when my line manager, having done some research, realised that both of us could get better support if we involved HR. So we did and we got the support.
This is why I knew exactly what I had to do when the conversation came back on the cards.
How to do it
The second time I had to bring up workplace mental health was still a little daunting but this time I was well prepared.
Why I chose to bring up my mental health issues with my new line manager
Fast forward to April 2017. I still work for the same company, but I have just changed jobs. I got a great opportunity in Head Office after all (so sharing my mental health condition with HR and the Chief Counsel did NOT end my career opportunities) and I have a new line manager.
I am in a much better place mental health wise although I am still on medication, slowly winding it down and I still have the occasional bad day. This is the reason I felt I should share my health condition with my line manager.
Here comes our first one to one after I joined the team and I explain that I have had severe depression, that I am much better now slowly getting off medication. I also explain how I got better (healthier lifestyle including a more reasonable working pattern), how I have researched depression since 2014 and realised the importance of a healthy worklife balance to prevent depression from coming back.
I also tell him that I am a hard worker and a high performer and I want to give him my very best performance, which I can best do when I have a strong mental health.
And I give him practical tips for what to do if I have a bad day, the idea being to turn the bad day into a good day asap so I can go back to perform at my best.
Here are the reasons why I still believe this was the right way to handle this:
- I explained the problem but brought solutions with me
- I told him at the first opportunity so that we both had the mean to prevent severe issues from happening
- I allowed him to share this information with his management and his HR business partner if he felt the need to so so
I discussed this conversation in detail in this interview with Becca Brown, workplace mental health coach, at minute 15’20”.
Workplace mental health conversations: how to get it right
The reasons I didn’t handle the workplace mental health conversation well the first time around was simply fear. This was very much due to the stigma of depression. Even though there is now a lot more awareness around mental health, I am sure many people can still relate to how I felt back then.
This is where line managers can make a difference.
Make yourself “tell-able”
Ideally, we’d all work for a manager whom we felt comfortable talking to when we needed help balancing work with our mental health. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. But you can make it more likely that people will come to you by being a role model. You don’t necessarily have to talk about your own mental health condition if you have one, but it could be about your kid having a hard time sleeping, or concerns you have about burning out. You want to show that you are human. Being vulnerable in this way gives people a small opening so they in turn feel more comfortable sharing.
If you hold a senior position in your organisation, sharing your personal experience with mental health, whether it’s addressing it directly or, say, openly blocking out your calendar to go to therapy, can go a long way toward normalising the discussion in your organisation and demonstrating that it’s possible to succeed at the highest levels when you have a mental health condition.
If a direct report opens up to you about workplace mental health, it’s great news!
It might seem a little scary at first but if your direct report shares with you their concerns about their mental health, it means they trust you. This is a very important point because it takes a lot of energy for a person in this state to reach out for help so you should appreciate the trust they have put in you.
Find out what your company policies are.
- Do you have any guidance available from your HR department?
- Can you get support from Occupational Health?
- Does your company offer training for line managers on workplace mental health?
- Does your company offer wellbeing training?
Mental health has become such a topic of discussion recently that more and more companies have internal programmes, trainings, seminars, available to their staff to help them. So ask your own manager and your HR department about what, if anything, is available within your organisation.
Do your own research
There are so many resources online now that it has never been easier to get up to speed with understanding mental health. Obviously, this blog will give you an insider perspective. Trying to understand what your direct report is going through will make a big difference as it will enable you to relate to them.
Your direct report’s health is their responsibility
Taking charge of their health is an important part of their recovery.
This means there is only so much you can do to help them. You can direct them to useful resources (like this blog), where they can learn how to look after themselves. You can do a few things like listening, taking them out for a short walk and giving them a break when they are having a hard day.
But at the end of the day, they need to take responsibility for their own wellbeing:
- They might need professional support
- They might need coaching
- They might need to learn how to look after themselves
Not everyone will respond in the same same way to different methods and treatments. They have to learn how to manage their mental health themselves.
Workplace Mental Health: 5 Practical Ways To Support Employees – key take aways
- make yourself “tell-able”
- appreciate the trust your direct report is showing you by sharing their health issues with you
- get support
- do your own research
- understand that your direct report needs to take charge of their needs and recovery
Further resources on workplace mental health
Harvard Business Review article on what to do when your employee discloses a mental health condition
Try these simple hacks and let me know how you get on
Do you have other tips for managers on how to deal with workplace mental health? What works well for you? I’d love to hear your stories. Let me know in the comments.
This article is part of the series Happier At Work.
And remember, happiness is a choice, and you are in charge!