The pandemic changed the way we think about physical health and safety, and it’s also encouraged public conversations about how mental health affects people’s lives and work.
“Now we have more openness and transparency, which is good, and it’s making our workplaces evolve,” says Carla Patton, co-owner of The Career Salon LLC and co-host of The Career Salon podcast. With that evolution comes a new set of challenges. The more we invite people to bring their whole selves to work, the more likely HR leaders are to have to address issues that weren’t so openly discussed in the workplace 5-10 years ago, such as mental health.
“Across industries we see it impacting people’s lives at work, including those of HR professionals,” Patton says. “These leaders often feel as though they’re charged with resolving related concerns — but with a scope that expands beyond the workplace into personal territory, which they’re not necessarily equipped or responsible for.”
But work can have a positive impact, too, and Patton is on a mission to inform and empower other HR professionals. Check out Patton’s advice for connecting workers with the resources they need and creating a supportive environment where people can thrive.
Draw the line between what you can and can’t resolve
As business leaders in HR, your instinct is to solve problems that affect the business. But when mental health is a factor, you can’t always fix the root problem. Failing to address mental health concerns can put the business at risk — but not every concern can be handled without crossing boundaries.
“There’s a line between helping employees resolve things that actually impact their work and the things that a licensed counselor or psychologist needs to help them with,” Patton says. “Having the skill to separate what’s about work and what’s not about work is key.”
Resources like the Center for Workplace Mental Health’s Notice.Talk.Act. at Work training program can help managers and HR professionals recognize where to draw that line.
Once you understand that distinction, the next step is pointing people in the right direction. “Trying to get the employees to resources quickly, and making decisions around what’s needed in the situation quickly, will be beneficial to leaders,” Patton says.
Focus on what people need
The wider conversation about mental health has more people talking about depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and autism — including employees. But not everyone has access to the medical care they need to get a diagnosis. And that’s before considering that mental health diagnoses manifest differently for individuals.
Mental health conversations at work shouldn’t be about labels. “Don’t focus on what they have,” Patton says. “Focus on what they need.” For example, an employee may have an otherwise well-managed anxiety disorder that’s being exacerbated by the pressures of completing a particularly challenging project. What they need may be a day or two off to help them recover when the project is complete.
Some employees may not feel comfortable asking for what they need — especially if they don’t talk to their managers regularly. Regular check-ins help you proactively address employee needs as well as performance issues, including those where mental health plays a role. “Sometimes managers and employees wait too long to start having these conversations,” Patton says.
Left unchecked, these situations can escalate. But “having that open line of communication helps to minimize what could turn into a bigger issue,” she says. “Empower leaders and HR professionals to check in with people on a regular cadence,” she continues.
Tap into company resources
Not only do companies need more education on mental health issues at work, but they also need better training options. “I do not observe many organizations delivering regular training on how to manage mental health at work and still have a functional business,” Patton says. Employee assistance programs (EAPs) can offer support for managing complex mental health situations at work, but EAPs aren’t a substitute for a comprehensive company approach.
“If you have employees who mental health concerns and you’re trying to manage their performance, don’t try to think through the solutions for potential accommodations all on your own,” Patton says. “Maybe get an attorney or your HR managers together in a group setting to think through the ways that you can help so it’s a group effort, and it’s not all on one person.”
Another solution might be enlisting mental health professionals to help resolve work-related issues. Having a qualified outsider can help employees feel like they have an advocate and be more comfortable asking for what they need.
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