How Supervisors Can Support Employees With a Mental Health Illness

In the U.S., one in five of us meets the criteria for having a mental health condition. Eight percent have a diagnosable substance use disorder. Not addressing an employee’s behavioral health issues leads to disconnects in performance and levels of engagement. Each year in the U.S., companies lose $105 billion in lowered productivity and 35 million workdays due to mental illness.

How Supervisors Can Support Employees With a Mental Health Illness

Tramaine ELAmin, M.A., assistant vice president of strategic partnerships at Mental Health First Aid USA, teed up these eye-opening stats during her session of the Mental Health Impact of COVID-19 on Workers and Their Families virtual conference. Her co-speaker, Christina M. Fuda, M.A., mental health first aid coordinator for the Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences shared that, in Canada, 82% of employers said mental health conditions are in the top three short-term and long-term disabilities.

Both speakers emphasized what mental health first aid is—and isn’t. Much like “first aid” means you are providing immediate care to help someone in physical duress get by until an EMT or other trained professional can get on the scene, mental health first aid provides you with the skills to help care for someone experiencing a behavioral crisis until a trained professional is available to assist them.

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Tramaine shared some tips for setting clear professional boundaries when supporting a colleague going through a mental health illness:

  • Use only what you observe—don’t make assumptions, incorporate hearsay or ask direct questions about a colleague’s health or diagnosis—knowledge that is protected health information.
  • Be supportive but have clear boundaries as a supervisor.
  • Know that you don’t have to agree with someone’s approach in order to provide support. Listening and supporting do not indicate agreement.
  • Pay attention to your feelings during the conversation. Are you distracted because you have an important meeting coming up? Know when you’re not the right person to support and tag someone else in.
  • Know when to stop the conversation and redirect them to an EAP. TMI—too much information—is a real thing in these situations.

In terms of ongoing workplace strategies, providing a constant flow communication of information and addressing your workforce’s expressed concerns is recommended. Let your colleagues know that the work they are doing is of high value. As you recognize that everyone processes stress differently, let them know that it’s okay not to be okay and provide a safe environment for them to reach out. Avoid telling employees what they should do and instead ask what they need. Consistency can help create a safe environment—don’t surprise employees with questions.  Instead, make sure to check in at regular intervals.

Learn More About Supporting Employees’ Mental Health

Access the full virtual conference Mental Health Impact of COVID-19 on Workers and Their Families to learn more. The conference explores mental health stigmas, existing barriers that limit access to mental health care, the stress on employees who are mental health caregivers and how processing grief has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn how to evaluate employee needs and ensure your benefits are designed to provide adequate and timely assistance.

Related Reading: Signs and Symptoms of an Employee Struggling With Mental Health

For even more resources, visit the International Foundation Workplace Mental Health webpage.

Stacy Van Alstyne, CEBS
Stacy Van Alstyne
Communications Director at the International Foundation

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