Why Leaders Need to Prioritize Their Team’s Mental Health

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Untreated mental health issues can directly impact their performance at work—and if an individual’s mental health challenges are directly tied to their job, they will likely quit in an effort to improve their well-being.

Mental health is having its long overdue moment in the workplace. More and more people have come to recognize how significant of an impact anxiety, depression, burnout, and other mental health issues can have on an individual’s well-being. 

The COVID-19 pandemic brought many of these issues to the forefront, in part because it revealed how fragile our mental health is. While the pandemic didn’t necessarily cause these problems, it worsened issues for some and helped open dialogue for others. While more leaders and their employees are now able to talk about mental health without the stigma, we still have a ways to go in terms of leaders properly supporting the mental health of their team. 

Research shows that happy workers are more productive.

Mental health has profound implications for workplace performance and the employee experience—so it should be a top priority for every leader. If the mass exodus of workers over the last 6 months has taught us anything, it’s that people are far less tolerant of compromising what’s important to them. While you don’t have to be anyone’s therapist, as a leader, you do need some basic understanding of how mental health works and how a person’s job can affect their well-being.

Case in point: “toxic workplaces”—those that are defined by bullying, incivility, and disrespect—have been directly linked to symptoms of insomnia, which is in itself often associated with clinical depression. With work being such a big part of an employee’s life, being forced to endure countless hours in a toxic environment can be extremely damaging to their mental and emotional well-being.

Not surprisingly, such issues can also be extremely detrimental to the business’s bottom line. Research shows that happy workers are more productive. Untreated mental health issues can directly impact their performance at work—and if an individual’s mental health challenges are directly tied to their job, they will likely quit in an effort to improve their well-being.

If your concern is purely utilitarian—and you feign concern to help ensure performance levels don’t slip, people will see right through it. Your regard for the mental health of your team must be born from a genuine concern for them as human beings, and the delight they experience in contributing to your organization. Treat performance results as an outcome of that kind of leadership. Treating people as only a means to an end is a sure fire way to damage their mental health and your team’s performance.

It’s important to recognize the signs of someone who is struggling. Mike Kogan, an assistant counselor at Care Counseling Center, explained to me that it’s the first responsibility a leader has. “When mental health challenges worsen, you’ll often see behavioral changes in the affected individual,” he said. “We all have bad days now and then, but leaders should be mindful of a lasting, seemingly sudden change in an employee’s behavior or temperament. They may become increasingly withdrawn or irritable, or get upset easily. They may display erratic behavior or be less inclined to engage with their coworkers. Increased absenteeism is also common as these issues worsen.”

By being able to recognize the signs, Kogan explains, leaders can open up a conversation where they can express their concern for the employee and see if they need (or are already seeking) help.

You need not feel awkward approaching team members when you notice these changes. Remember, your job isn’t to diagnose or make meaning of the changes. Your job is simply to let people know that you’ve noticed, and that you care. You can say something like, “I’ve noticed you’ve been quieter than usual. I’m not trying to pry, and you don’t have to share anything you don’t want to, but I wanted you to know that I noticed this, and I’m concerned. If there’s anything I can do, or if I can be a listening ear, please let me know.”

Of course, employees may not be willing to discuss their mental health if your office hasn’t actively fostered a culture of connection and psychological safety—where they can feel safe to openly express themselves and discuss the challenges they may be facing.

“People need to feel like they belong—like they matter and like their organization values them,” Kogan said. “Otherwise, work can be an incredibly isolating experience—and that sense of isolation can make mental health symptoms even worse. Leaders must consistently demonstrate empathy and understanding so that employees can feel like they have the ability to raise concerns about stressors in the workplace.”

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Even with an open work culture, employees may be worried about discussing their mental health issues with their boss—particularly if their challenges partly stem from the work environment. Providing options such as an anonymous tip line or contact with HR can give employees more avenues for addressing any workplace stressors that are having an impact on their mental health.

And don’t forget that one of the main stressors your team may be contending with is you. You may be inadvertently putting undue pressure on them, making unreasonable requests or changing priorities abruptly on them. To be sure you’re not the problem, let people know that you value feedback. Say something like, “I’m aware that we’re under a lot of pressure these days, but the last thing I want is to be another burden to you. If there’s anything about how I am leading the team—how I give direction or feedback, too much or too little, how I support you, or don’t, or how I am creating space for you to thrive, please tell me so I can get better.” Offer an anonymous way for them to get you feedback if telling you directly feels too risky for them. (And if it does feel too risky, that in itself is feedback).

Some leaders may be understandably concerned about how to balance compassion for an employee going through a mental health challenge with accountability for that individual’s responsibilities. When you know that an employee is struggling with their mental health, you don’t have to lower your business’s standards. However, you may need to do some “renegotiating” in terms of enabling your employee to perform their work to their highest ability. Admittedly some leaders struggle with this. 

A client of mine recently confided in me about someone on her team, “He’s never claimed he had anxiety issues before, but now suddenly there’s an opportunity to take on a big project that he asked to be given, and it’s too much to take on. Isn’t being a bit nervous taking on a new challenge just normal?” I worked with my client to help her see that people are suddenly able to acknowledge their mental health needs, when for years that didn’t seem possible. Rather than assuming it was a “yes or no” question, I encouraged her to go back to him, and probe more deeply to see if there was a way to help him take on the project in a way that he felt confident about, and that wouldn’t trigger undue levels of anxiety. That way, he didn’t have to feel like he was choosing between his career and his mental health.

For example, an employee might need to adjust their hours or spend more time working remotely to better handle mental health needs. Be clear and direct about expectations and responsibilities, but also empathetic as you discuss these and other concerns and how they affect workplace accountability.

As long as the work is still up to your standards, you should be open to making needed adjustments—especially since flexible work arrangements have been found to benefit mental health. Show you care by “checking in” with how they’re doing before you check on their progress.

Balancing mental health needs and the demands of the workplace can be complicated, especially for leaders. But to overcome the stigmas surrounding mental health and create a place where every employee can thrive, leaders must realize their role in their team’s mental health needs.

By creating a compassionate, caring and safe workplace culture that still prioritizes accountability, you can foster an environment where everyone is able to succeed while keeping their mental health intact.

Ron Carucci is an Advisory Board member of Ethical Systems as well as cofounder and managing partner at Navalent, working with CEOs and executives pursuing transformational change for their organizations, leaders, and industries. He is the bestselling author of eight books, and his work has been featured in Fortune, CEO Magazine, Harvard Business Review, BusinessInsider, MSNBC, BusinessWeek, and Smart Business.

Reprinted with permission from Forbes.