Discrimination against employees because of their health – including mental health – is illegal. While HR can ensure that the right support is in place, managers must also ensure that stigma does not affect their day-to-day decisions about their teams. For example, how can a manager prevent their personal perception of mental health from biasing their work or performance review of an employee who reveals a mental health challenge? To reduce the impact of stigma following a mental health disclosure, managers must acknowledge their biases, lead with curiosity, work together to solve problems, and promote a supportive work culture.
Since the pandemic began, many employees experience mental health challenges and talking about their mental health at work. This means that many managers have insight into the mental health of their team members. While that insight helps provide support, it also raises an important question: How can managers make fair decisions after an employee leaves? share a mental health challenge?
Discrimination against employees because of their health – including mental health – is illegal. While HR can ensure that the right support is in place, managers must also ensure that stigma does not affect their day-to-day decisions about their teams.
At Mind Share Partners, we work with leading companies to create mentally healthy work cultures, a key requirement is that employees feel safe talking about their mental health – without fear of effect. Here are four ways managers can make sure they treat employees who are experiencing mental health challenges fairly.
Recognize your personal bias.
The first step is to examine your own experience and knowledge of mental health challenges. Megan Rogers, licensed marriage and family therapist and member of the advisory council of Mind Share Partners, suggests that “you start by acknowledging and recognizing that you as a manager may be biased, instead of ignoring it .”
One way to do this is to review your personal mental health experience. For example, have you or a family member or friend experienced mental health in some way? If so, how has that affected your perception of mental health or a particular diagnosis? As a manager, expand your knowledge and skills about mental health and identity can help you identify biases you may have.
Bonnie Hayden Cheng, associate professor of management and strategy at Hong Kong University, reminds us of another way to examine our assumptions: “Flip the script to challenge your current biases. Do this by asking yourself, ‘What if I were in this person’s position?’ or ‘What if it was a family member?’”
Finally, as a manager, it is important to remember that some mental health experiences can also have a positive effect. My own experience with depressive symptoms during my pregnancy, for example, taught me to be more compassionate and self-aware. Many of my colleagues also credit their mental health challenges as helping them develop important professional and social skills, such as connection and drive. These positive results do not negate the difficulties that come with mental health challenges, of course, but recognizing the individual strengths that come from them can change and reduce the negative prejudice for decision making managers.
Mainly with curiosity.
When an employee shares that they are struggling with mental health, or if you suspect they are, it can be tempting to jump to judgment or solutions right away. Instead, start conversations with empathy and curiosity. For example, if an employee’s engagement seems poor or their performance is unusual, lead with a question: “I’ve noticed that you don’t always participate in meetings as usual. How are you?” Or, if an employee has shared about how grief affects their focus, you can say, “I know you’ve talked about this time of year being difficult for you. In what ways can we support you?”
When you make decisions about tasks or project roles, instead of asking yourself, “Can they do this thing?” ask, “How can they succeed in doing this thing?” If an employee shares that they’re feeling anxious, for example, don’t immediately assume they can’t make progress on projects or leadership roles. Instead, consider what supports they need to be successful in doing that work. “Tying a direct line between a mental health challenge and shifting work performance isn’t always accurate,” shares Christine Coleman, licensed marriage and family therapist and Mind Share advisory council member. Partners. “As we grow in our empathy, we become conscious of avoiding using something recognizable like a mental health challenge as the sole reason for something to happen. We can never fully know. until we extend ourselves to better know the whole person.”
Leading with curiosity can support individual and team goals. Rogers told managers to think “as a manager, part of my job is to manage the success of the company, and It’s also part of my job to manage and take care of people within the company.” Instead of feeling like those are opposing responsibilities, according to Rogers, “the wisdom comes from seeing the two together.” He adds, “Recognize that it doesn’t serve a manager or the company to not support this person.” By leading with curiosity, you reduce the chance of making the wrong assumptions about how someone feels or why. they act in a certain way.
The employee is your best resource for understanding their experience – no one knows how mental health impacts their work better than them. “Everyone struggles differently and at different times, so a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work,” says Cheng.
Once you’ve built a trusting relationship with an employee, you can have productive conversations about how mental health affects them. For some, working out can be helpful during a mental health challenge; for others, taking a break from work is the right thing to do. Coleman suggests asking, “I’m curious about how this challenge affects your work and what I and the team can do to support you in that.”
Ideally, an individual, their manager, and HR will work together to find a solution if necessary. An individual knows best their needs, a manager knows the needs of the team, and HR understands what the company can offer and how to avoid discrimination. This group should consider a extensive adaptations and accommodations and recognize that it may take some iteration.
Create a team culture of psychological safety.
Reducing bias in mental health is not just a one-time event. Managers can actively think about creating a group culture where mental health is a normal and psychologically safe topic. One of the most meaningful ways managers can do this is by sharing their own stories. When the managers leading with weakness and share personal experiences, they pave the way for employees to open up about what they’re going through.
Managers can also promote a collaborative team culture. This may include creating opportunities for genuine connection, providing an appreciation for teamwork, and modeling supportive behavior. Cheng’s research showed that when colleagues have low levels of rivalry, they are more likely to respond to expressions of concern with support rather than rejection – that is, employees with positive relationships are more likely to help to a person experiencing anxiety. This research, he said, “has broader implications about building workplace cultures that promote workplace well-being.”
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As mental health continues to grow as a priority within organizations, managers must take proactive steps to reduce mental health stigma by questioning their assumptions and creating a collaborative, psychologically safe environment. group culture. When working directly with an employee, managers must lead with curiosity and work collaboratively for solutions with the affected employee and human resources.