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Managers Play a Role In Employees' Mental Health

I worked for a bully, and it nearly destroyed me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the toll it took on my mental health and my overall health was devastating. This boss would belittle me, tell me I didn’t know what I was doing, and would even publicly humiliate me when we were supposed to be presenting together. I remember one morning, he called me into his office just to scream and swear at me. At the time, I did what I had to do to get through it, white-knuckling my way to the end of every workweek, every workday, even every hour. 

It was only when I left that job that I realized all the damage that had been done. My confidence had dropped significantly, and it took me about a year to trust my new leader and feel safe in suggesting ideas, asking questions, and performing at the level I was used to. Also a year later, I became pregnant with my second son, a pregnancy that my doctors said would never happen. I attribute that to the reduction in stress and anxiety and my prioritizing my mental health. 

I share that story because I know that I’m not alone. Managers have the ability to affect every employee’s mental health, either positively or negatively, while they’re working together and even well after that time. A recent study by UKG found that “Managers have just as much of an impact on people’s mental health as their spouse (both 69%) — and even more of an impact than their doctor (51%) or therapist (41%).” 

That’s 28% more power over a person’s mental health as their therapist. It’s time we start talking about how managers can positively impact someone’s mental health.

Fast forward several years, and I find myself working for a boss that really cares about mental health and our team. On a recent team call, I was having a tough morning. Something I was working on just hadn’t gone as planned, and I felt defeated. I shared what had happened with the team. I told them that I was not “OK.” Their response, and especially the response from my CEO, showed me yet again that, on the days when I may feel less than 100%, I have their support 100%. My boss reminds us often in subtle and specific ways that it is OK to not be OK — and this gives us full permission to prioritize our mental health. 

I realize that I’m lucky to have this recent experience because not many have it. According to that same UKG study, “Forty percent of people are “often” or “always” stressed about work.” Despite this huge number, 38% of employees say they’ve “rarely” or “never” addressed the situation with their manager. The respondents then listed various reasons why they chose not to confide in their boss: some believed the manager just wouldn’t care (16%), others that he or she was “too busy” (13%), and still others because they felt they “should be able to figure it out” without help (20%). That 20% scares me almost more than the other responses — that means 20% of those employees believe they should suffer in isolation because they don’t deserve support from their boss or team. 


So, how do leaders support their employees’ mental health? The first step is to be vulnerable yourself. The expectations placed on today’s leaders are extremely high, almost unattainable. UKG states, “People managers are often the first line of defense for struggling employees, yet people earning $100K-$200K report feeling most unhappy at work.” I would argue that you don’t have to be perfect, and that showing that you are human will create a safe place for employees to be able to share their challenges with you. 

The next step is to not only engage in conversation but to make space for conversation. Checking in with your employees is a great way to start. Making sure you make time for the conversation is important as well. 

One of my favorite ways of checking in is an agile ritual, but I use it in a non-traditional way. Hold a daily standup with your team. In the meeting, ask everyone to do a finger shoot to show how they’re feeling today. You can change this up to ask about workload, stress, or anything else. The employees pick a number from 1-5 (but they can’t choose a 3–this makes them commit to a number). Everyone at the same time shows their number, so that there’s no pressure to agree with someone else. You can then engage them with questions, like, “Sally, why did you say 5?” and “Joe, what can we do to help you today since you said 2?” This gets the conversation going and creates a culture where it’s OK to not be OK.

Leaders are responsible for setting the culture of the team. The behavior you exhibit and the behaviors you tolerate define your culture. When you’re open to having conversations around mental health, you’re creating a culture that focuses on — and supports — your people. By showing your own vulnerability as a leader and showing your support, you’re creating a space that’s psychologically safe, as well. So: Let’s start the conversation!

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