Mental health is a critical component of every employee’s wellbeing and should be a top priority in all workplaces. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, 51% of workers have reported an increase in mental health symptoms at work, with 75% of 18- to 24-year-olds reporting one or more mental health symptom. Overall, anxiety levels have tripled, while signs of depression have quadrupled.
Finding ways to improve each team member’s mental health in the workplace requires intentional and continual leadership commitment and action. A healthy workplace requires buy-in from business owners, executives, and managers all the way down to front-line supervisors and employees. Here are 20 things leaders at different levels can do to better support the mental health of every team member.
Develop policies for a safe, inclusive, and equal culture
Your organization’s culture comprises its values, expectations, and practices, each of which sets the tone for how employees perceive, engage, and follow leaders. The National Safety Council outlines six areas that are foundational for policies addressing mental health in the workplace:
- Understanding mental health and mental illness
- Knowing the relationship between mental health, mental illness, and the workplace
- Perceiving the impacts of COVID-19 on team members
- Taking action
- Addressing stigma and other barriers to success
- Measuring success
The policies you develop lay the foundation for how your entire organization interacts with its customers, vendors, and employees. When policies, written and unwritten, provide a safe, inclusive, and equal culture throughout your organization, it also improves health across all other areas, including your team’s mental health and your company’s performance.
Enroll in workplace mental health training
Mental health symptoms aren’t new, but they impact team members at an increasing and alarming rate, making it a top area for trainers and for leaders looking to build and maintain healthier teams. The impact of mental health is complex; understanding the basics requires specialized training. Mental health training can be a preventive approach to mental health issues whereby leaders can gain insight into the types of signs they should look for that might indicate a team member needs more help and support. This training can also offer leaders the tools they need to provide the support required.
Solicit outside professionals
Training isn’t the end of being prepared to support each team member in their quest for better mental health; it’s the beginning. Training provides a basis for being more supportive, but implementing policies and taking action to improve mental health and resilience could require mental health professionals.
Solicit feedback about your performance
Effectively supporting the mental health of each team member requires taking stock of each leader’s performance. Feedback helps to:
- Understand how different teams see your organization’s culture
- Gauge how supportive policies are and what needs to be improved
- Ensure there is accountability
- Increase confidence in leadership’s willingness to provide support
- Increase communication and action where needed
The best way to see how leaders at all levels can improve is to solicit feedback anonymously. This allows each leader to see where they’re falling short and where they excel. It will become the baseline to measure progress.
Provide a means for anonymous feedback
Receiving honest feedback from each team member is possible only if they feel comfortable doing so; surveys are a great way to get specific and focused responses. It may be helpful to work with human resources or outside mental health professionals to craft a questionnaire and decipher the results.
Demonstrate openness to feedback
Asking for honest feedback and being open to the results — especially potentially negative feedback, can be two different things. To effectively support the mental health of the entire team, leaders must know how each member of their team perceives them.
Put yourself last
Holding a leadership role is a privilege; it can be challenging to remember this once in the position. The success of each leader isn’t predicated on how much they are seen but rather how well their team performs. The only way for teams to do well is if each team member is well, and this requires servant leadership, serving the needs of teams and the organization over personal career goals and biases.
Be an empathetic leader
Empathy is a leadership competency; it’s the ability to lead while also making every effort to understand the experiences and needs of others. Empathy is one of the most essential characteristics of successful leaders and can offer many benefits for leaders and teams, including creating bonds, providing more insight, and increasing understanding and communication.
Be more vulnerable
Vulnerability is present in every person’s life, but it’s often seen as a weakness rather than a strength. Leaders who can express who they really are and what they genuinely think and feel. Vulnerable leadership can increase opportunities for meaningful conversations that build more solid team relationships because team members can relate and connect more with this type of leader, especially as they face challenges and life struggles.
Be respectful and sensitive to each team member
Respect is one of the most underrated keys to supporting team mental health. It’s a simple concept yet often falls by the wayside during times of stress and conflict. It can significantly impact a team member’s mental health, especially when they are disrespected by leadership. Respect is something that should be not only encouraged but embedded in an organization’s human resource code of conduct. Treating all team members with respect is vital regardless of where they fall on the organizational ladder.
Welcome and encourage mental health days
Every person needs time throughout the year to regroup and recoup. Leaders should encourage every team member to take paid formal mental health days. This provides much-needed time to take a break from work-related stressors, attend mental health-related appointments, clear their heads, or have some guilt-free downtime without the risk of judgment. Mental health days should come with a no-questions-asked policy.
Encourage team members to support each other
It’s not enough for leaders to support their teams. Leaders should also encourage and expect team members to support each other as well. By fostering an environment of fairness, respect, and no judgment, team members can also develop empathy toward each other, making it easier for everyone to appreciate one another and perform better.
Arrange off-premises non-work activities
Teams spend a great deal of time working together. Strong well-functioning teams also need time to get to know one another beyond just meeting goals. Leaders should move beyond team building and instead arrange off-premises fun team-bonding activities. Teams that enjoy each other’s company are far more likely to experience healthier relationships, improved communication, collaboration, and trust.
Stressors in the workplace can center around not having the right tools and technologies to get work done. Productivity isn’t always tied to team members not performing. Leaders at all levels should provide what’s needed to reduce team members’ workload and free up time to focus on higher-level work that adds value and decreases unnecessary manual workarounds.
Communicate frequently and consistently
One of the things that create significant anxiety among team members, especially during uncertainty or crisis, is a lack of information. Frequent and consistent internal upward, downward, and lateral communication from leaders can alleviate stress and anxiety. Even when news isn’t ideal, it’s best to have certainty rather than confusion and uncertainty. How information is shared is also a key element; leaders should, whenever possible, share news in person to allow team members to ask questions that may weigh heavily on their minds.
Check back in with team members
Closing the loop is often a step overlooked but critical, especially when communicating between team members and leaders. It’s not enough to get input about what’s working or not, make changes, and forget to follow up. The end-to-end feedback loop requires checking in with team members in a timely way to ensure changes that have been made are providing the level of support they need.
Offer psychological support
Encourage and provide access to mental health services when and where needed. When team members perceive a lack of psychological support from their organization, it can generate:
- Increased absenteeism
- Undesirable behaviors
- Increased conflict
- Unnecessary anxiety, strain, and burnout
- Increased turnover
- Reduced productivity
- Increased costs
- Increased risk of accidents and injuries
By ensuring psychological support is available, it can protect team members against traumatic workplace stressors.
Fund an external employee assistance program (EAP)
Not all team members will want to share their concerns in a peer support group. If concerns are personal in nature, there may be a preference for talking with an external and experienced therapist that offers complete anonymous support. This can be of particular interest for team members dealing with deeply personal issues that they believe may impact their employment. Organizational senior leaders should implement an external employee assistance program (EAP) to help team members better focus and perform at their best.
Set clear expectations
One of the things that team members are heard saying often is that expectations weren’t clearly laid out. This can be become a stressor, specifically when team goals aren’t met. No matter what the task, leaders should ensure there’s clear communication about expectations. Whether it’s communicating tasks or general team expectations, it’s better for leaders to encourage team members to ask questions without feeling ashamed to do so.
Adjust to keep up with changes
What works today may not work tomorrow. As with organizational strategy, circumstances change that might impact initiatives, so too is team-based support. Strategies and steps to better support a team member’s mental health can quickly become ineffective as circumstances change. Leaders should engage in ongoing communication with team members to ensure they provide the proper support to keep their teams mentally healthy.