By Serena H. Huang, Ph.D.
As an HR executive, I often receive questions about mental health support from managers and senior leaders. These questions — and the experience of losing a family friend to suicide earlier this year — have inspired me to focus on mental health support in the workplace.
I started educating myself on mental health and found staggering statistics. Nearly one billion people worldwide experience some form of a mental health condition, according to the 2022 World Mental Health Report from the World Health Organization. Rates of already-common conditions such as depression and anxiety went up by more than 25% in the first year of the pandemic.
With these stats in mind, what can a manager of people do to improve mental health in the workplace?
Difficult topics, like mental illness and suicide, have likely impacted more people within your organization than you think — it is simply not discussed openly. Changing the culture of the workplace to allow for open and honest discussion about emotional well-being can begin with you. Are you feeling anxious about a deadline? Are you having a difficult day because of continued uncertainties in the business environment? As managers and senior leaders, you can start to normalize discussions about mental health by talking about how you are feeling.
Separately, you can talk about physical health and mental health as equally important. This will also impact how you manage your team. Are you giving the person who has physical health issues the same amount of time off and kindness as someone who has a mental health condition?
A direct way to challenge stigma is to speak out against it. If you are able and comfortable, engage in conversations about mental health and make it clear to your coworkers that stigma has no role in the workplace. Educating yourself and others can be helpful, and remember, your words matter. Never use stigmatizing words like “crazy” when describing a person who has a mental illness.
I’ve heard many leaders say, “don’t we have HR or a benefits department for that?” Yes, indeed. However, know that for employees in dealing with severe mental health symptoms, it can be too daunting to talk to HR about their challenges. So it’s important for you to understand your company’s leave policies and keep the critical phone numbers on hand so you can easily share with employees who need them.
Of course, having the numbers handy does not guarantee an employee in need will feel comfortable reaching out to you for help. Therefore, it is important for a manager to create a supportive environment for those who are struggling to speak up and seek help in the first place. One practice I use twice a week with my direct reports is a casual question of “how are you doing right now on a scale of 1 to 10?” and then I follow-up with a question of “what is driving that number for you today?” For those with lower scores, I check to see what support either I or other team members an provide. Over time, this normalized the discussion around workload and non-work factors causing stress for my team members. This score is now dubbed the “Serena Index” on my team and it’s a simple practice I’d encourage any managers to borrow.
It is well-documented that people of color (POC) face significant barriers to mental health care due to racism. Language and cultural barriers can be deterrents for POC and their families. Additionally, certain racial groups have unique challenges.
For example, the Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) community often contends with the “model minority myth,” a stereotype that characterizes the AAPI community as an obedient and hard-working group who achieve greater success than the rest of the population due to their inherent talents and work ethic. This places an undue burden on AAPIs to project an image of success and perfection.
Another example is that, Black adults, according to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, “are more likely than white adults to report persistent symptoms of emotional distress, such as sadness and feeling like everything is an effort.” However, only one in three Black adults with mental illness receive treatment, despite their needs.
While awareness is the first step, there are practical steps a manager can take to respond to these challenges. First, listen actively and respect the cultural differences. When a team member of a different background speaks up about their experience, listen to understand, rather than to respond. Second, familiarize yourself with employee resource groups (ERGs) within the company and actively participate to continue the learning process. Accept that you will not understand everything someone else is going through and continue to show up for them.
A recent study by Qualtrics found that a sense of belonging is a top driver of employee engagement. People who feel like they belong in the workplace environment are almost three times as likely to have a greater sense of well-being (78% vs. 28%). Some ways leaders and managers can foster a stronger sense of belonging include:
Managers have a responsibility to prevent employee burnout. While burnout is not a mental health condition, you should pay attention to certain warning signs in employees including exhaustion, alienation from work-related activities and reduced performance.
While burnout and depression can share some physical symptoms, they are not the same. Depression symptoms may look like hopelessness, fatigue, disinterest in things that once brought joy and suicidal ideation. According to Dr. Rebecca Brendel, president of the American Psychiatric Association, a key differentiator is that burnout gets better when you step away from work or take a vacation. Depression doesn’t go away if you change your circumstances. Some steps a manager can take to prevent employee burnout include:
According to a study from the World Health Organization, every dollar invested in scaling up treatment for depression and anxiety leads to a return of four dollars. Managers and senior leaders have long been asked to focus on employee performance and delivering results. However, we now know that focusing on mental health is not only the right thing to do for employees, but also a smart decision for the business.
Dr. Serena H. Huang is an HR executive and a mental health advocate. She is an international keynote speaker in employee experience, diversity & inclusion, HR technology and data analytics. Her monthly newsletter “From Data to Action” has thousands of subscribers. Her recent interviews appeared on Profile Magazine, Tech Talks, and AllVoices podcast. Follow her on LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/serenahhuangphd/ today.
Views are the author's own.
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