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7 Simple Ways to Instantly Support Employee Mental Health

Published: April 5, 2022

Last Updated: November 7, 2022

  7 min read

By: Michelle Cadieux

Here are small, everyday actions managers and leaders can take to support employee mental health and reduce stigma in the workplace.

There is a widespread assumption that mental illness is rare. It's probably one of the most prevalent myths about mental health today.

This myth is far from the truth...

Just consider some of the following statistics:

In other words, if you manage a team or own a business, you are most definitely working with people who are actively dealing with mental health issues. 

That said, it's important to remember mental health struggles exist on a spectrum.

This means that some cases are severe enough to interfere with people's ability to work or function. Still, there are countless people who cope while working and going about their daily routines.

So the questions remain. How can businesses and managers support people going through a difficult time, but also protect the mental health of all their employees?

Cultivating supportive environments

If there is one thing to remember it's that environmental stress is the number one enemy of mental health. 

To that end, supporting employees' mental health requires a combination of both short-term and long-term interventions.

Typically HR teams are responsible for planning long-term strategies. This can include better vacation policies, access to psychological resources, improved medical plans, and wellness programs.

While these strategies are critical for the support of employees' mental health, the day-to-day reality of work is also critical.

In other words, when it comes to protecting employees' mental health, supporting employees in their regular, daily lives is as important as long-term policies and programs

This article will cover some key strategies that any leader or manager can apply immediately to help create an environment of support and understanding and ultimately support employees' mental health. 

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7 Simple Ways to Instantly Support Your Employees' Mental Health

Create an environment of openness

The first step to supporting mental health is creating an environment of open communication. If people suffer in silence or are afraid to voice their concerns, none of the following tips will be effective.

That said, even though mental health is more widely discussed in the news and media, there is still a stigma attached to it. As a result, those struggling may be reluctant to come forward or disclose their struggles to even their manager as they may fear being unfairly judged.

This is unfortunate, as struggling in silence may make things worse. 

The goal here is not to coax people into disclosing their illnesses or making them uncomfortable. Rather, the goal is to create a safe, accepting environment where people can share (on their own terms) when going through a trying time.

The following actions help create an open and safe environment:

  • Be honest about your own struggles. If you’ve ever gone through a period of high stress, overwhelm, burnout, be open about it. This normalizes talking about mental health and the struggles we all go through and invites others to share.
  • Actively let people know they are supported. Make sure to overstate the fact that employees can be open with you.

Ultimately, knowing that an employee is struggling is the first step to helping them. And creating an environment that feels safe and inclusive is key to helping support and protect employees’ mental health.

Identify sources of excessive stress

Some stress levels are to be expected at work. A bit of stress can actually boost performance and motivation in moderate doses

In other words, no one is asking you to completely get rid of work-related stress. That's not realistic.

Stress only becomes damaging to our health when it is persistently high for extended periods of time. In short, when stress becomes chronic.

Sadly, many workplaces are rife with excessive stress. And regrettably, many managers and leaders are disconnected from their employees day-to-day. They don't cultivate an environment of openness, leaving employees suffering in silence and left to their own devices.

To that end, learning how to reduce workplace stress is a crucial strategy to support and prevent mental health issues in the workplace.

Psychologist Nick Wignall recommends a similar exercise in his guide on burnout. He calls it conducting a "Stressor Inventory."

You can conduct a "Stressor Inventory" with your employees on a regular basis by asking a few questions:

  • How are your stress levels these days?
  • What is causing you the most stress?
  • How can we address this together?

Many companies address mental health by giving employees gym memberships and meditation apps. While these tools can be helpful, they will only be a band-aid if the work environment is filled with unnecessary stressors. Only when those stressors are identified and addressed head-on will the root of the issue be resolved.

Have honest conversations 

Suppose employees are sharing their concerns or troubles openly with their peers or leadership. In that case, this is a sign you have created a psychologically safe environment.

That said, if an employee comes forward to disclose a mental issue, whether a diagnosed condition or simply going through a difficult period, it's important to first thank them for their honesty and openness.

In the article, When Your Employee Discloses a Mental Health Condition, the authors assert the importance of listening when an employee comes to you about their mental health.

In other words, it's important to have an honest conversation but never push an employee to reveal details. Let them disclose as much (or as little) as they want.

The purpose of the honest conversation is to get an idea of what the employee needs from you at this time.

For example:

  • Do they need more flexibility around deadlines?
  • Do they need to take time off?
  • Do they need to lighten their workload?

Those who struggle with mental health tend to go through periods where symptoms are more severe and more manageable periods. So if you want to support someone struggling with their mental health, you must be on the same page and adjust your expectations accordingly. More on that in the next section.

Manage your expectations

Humans are not robots. In other words, it is unrealistic to expect any employee to perform with the same intensity and energy all year round. Sadly, many employers have unrealistic expectations of their employees.

That's why managing your expectations can help support employees' mental health. This attitude can be especially useful and provide relief to those struggling or going through a difficult time.

Remember: Stress is the number one enemy of mental health. The constant pressure to perform, ongoing obligations, and high expectations are a form of chronic stress. This stress can provoke mental health problems and also exacerbate issues for those actively struggling.

Managing your expectations, such as tweaking the workload and granting employees more flexibility, can lift a weight off their shoulders. Ultimately easing up the stress and pressure, helping employees cope and, hopefully, get back on track faster.

This might mean you will get a little less output from your employees in the short term. On the other hand, it will lead to your employees feeling more supported and cared for in the long run. As a result, they are more likely to feel committed to your company and stay long-term. But also, when they are feeling well and in a better place, they will be able to perform at their best.

Validate their struggles

Mental health still carries a stigma.

As such, many people who struggle are hard on themselves. In short, they are judgmental of their condition. They may feel alone and isolated. And they may even see it as a personal failure. 

Of course, this negative self-talk fuels the problem and leads to continuing the vicious cycle.

This is one of the reasons why therapy can be a powerful way to help bring relief. In therapy, people receive empathy and compassion for their struggles. Not judgment or criticism. 

But compassion and empathy can be given by anyone – not just therapists. 

To that end, one of the best ways to support someone who is struggling with their mental health is to simply validate their experience rather than trying to offer solutions or get them to “just be grateful” or to “see the positive side of things.” 

Even in a professional setting, saying the following things can be a powerful way to show your support:

  • This sounds incredibly difficult.
  • You are strong for going through this.
  • I’m available to talk if you need me.
  • You are not alone.
  • I have gone through something similar myself.
  • Let me know what I can do to make this time easier for you.

Speaking about mental health in this way normalizes the subject. By bringing these topics to light, people feel less alone in their struggles. Even this alone can be extremely helpful.

Build a culture of appreciation

Appreciation and gratitude are an antidote to stress. Research also shows that one of the key drivers of burnout is a lack of recognition.

Think about it like this.

When employees don't feel seen, valued, or support, they feel dejected and resentful; as a result, their emotional state will suffer. 

On the other hand, when they will feel deeply valued and supported and recognized for their work, they will feel happy and validated. These positive feelings will feed into a more positive mindset, effectively helping to support their overall emotional and mental well-being. 

This is not only speculation, and studies back up this claim.

For example, a recent 2021 study of manufacturing workers showed that workers who felt valued were less likely to say they feel stressed out on a typical workday (16% vs. 66%). That's huge!

Managers who show their appreciation regularly motivate employees to do the same. As such, managers can start building a more positive team culture with simple gestures of appreciation and recognition. Doing this will help keep stress-inducing interpersonal habits like passive aggression and conflict at bay.

Bottom line: actively showing your appreciation helps reduce stress levels and keep employees satisfied and engaged.

Foster a culture that values rest and disconnecting

A sure sign of a dysfunctional culture is when employees are directly (or indirectly) expected to be available all the time. 

Employees may feel an unspoken pressure to conform to unrealistic standards in these cultures. For example, they may rarely take a vacation and remain available during weekends, holiday breaks, or sick days. 

These cultures may see a boost in short-term performance in the first months or years of an employee's tenure. But this work standard is not sustainable. Working under such stressful conditions produces a higher risk of employees developing work-related illnesses such as burnout. As a result, they may need to take extended leaves of absence in the long run.

On the flip side, cultures that support emotional well-being and mental health reject these norms. 

In healthy cultures, leadership sets the tone. They foster a culture where rest and disconnection are valued. They know rest is a critical tool for managing stress. 

For example, vacation time is generous. Employees are encouraged to take plenty of time off and fully disconnect from work while they are away. Their bosses or peers don't make them feel guilty for taking time off or for taking time for themselves in the evenings and weekends. 

Companies that cultivate healthy cultures and actively prevent burnout recognize that sleep, rest, and disconnecting are vital to people's long-term health and performance.

Final Thoughts

Workplace stress plays a critical role in mental health. Yet, what "workplace stress" means will vary with each company.

Root causes of stress can include, for instance:

  • Unresolved interpersonal conflict
  • Exclusion, unfair treatment, gossip
  • Unrealistic performance expectations
  • Expectation to remain available during time off
  • Excessive workload and deadlines
  • An overload of meetings
  • Negativity, hostility, and passive-aggressiveness
  • Disrespect and lack of consideration for each other
  • Inadequate time off

As you can see, stress can stem from team culture and habits, like passive-aggressive behaviour. But also higher-level organizational practices like the amount of vacation time offered.

Building healthy environments cannot be done overnight. It requires managers and leaders to take small, daily steps to connect with employees and build conditions in which chronic stress is taken seriously. With both short and long-term tactics in place, companies can mitigate the risk of work-related illnesses such as burnout and ultimately protect the mental health of everyone on board.

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A Happier Workplace


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