Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual can cope with everyday stressors, work productively, reach his or her full potential, and contribute to their community.1
I first came to be responsible for a team of colleagues in 2009. It was my first formal leadership position and the only piece of advice I received from my Director was, "Just be yourself." Since then, I have managed several teams and supported staff through the ups and downs of our daily grind. With a background in organisational psychology, I was familiar with the notion of employee wellbeing and its positive impact in the workplace.2 Applying it in real life was quite a different kettle of fish. I was an earnest manager. I think I still am. As someone responsible for others, I believe it is my job to create conditions where team members can do their best work.
Given the COVID-19 pandemic, the last two years have been a humbling experience in people management. A piece of learning I have taken away is that far from being a good-to-have, supporting our team’s mental wellbeing is a must if we want employees to not only survive, but thrive in their world of work.
However, telling managers that they can, and must, support staff mental wellbeing can be a challenging conversation. What are the boundaries? Where does my responsibility for this person end? In what ways am I accountable for what this person is feeling? These are reasonable questions. I hope my reflections will help managers better support staff mental wellbeing in the post-pandemic workplace.
#1. Facilitate employees’ efforts to take care of their own mental health
One lesson I have learnt from the pandemic is that we must take care of our mental health as intentionally as we do our physical health . To keep ourselves physically fit for work, we exercise, eat well and get adequate rest. When it comes to our mental health, we often feel too busy to take that 10-minute walk or do that deep breathing exercise. There always seems to be more important things to do. It is no surprise that more people are burning out in the workplace.3
Working in isolation amid a pandemic took its toll on team members who were experiencing an entire spectrum of emotions on both personal and professional fronts. I was worried that people would burn out from their extended period of stress.4 When weekly Zoom meetings did not feel enough to keep the team’s spirits up, I checked in on individuals on WhatsApp, scheduled virtual chat sessions, and availed myself as a listening ear to anyone who asked. It was challenging, but when the team expressed appreciation for these opportunities for connection and care, I was glad I persevered.
Different people need different things to take care of their mental health. While a manager is not expected to be a counsellor to their staff, we are responsible for creating conditions in which our team feel healthy in every way, are engaged, and can sustain their energies. When we see that our staff need their mental wellbeing taken care of, we are responsible for helping them access the right resources. These resources can be simple, such as time off after a stressful period. For colleagues who need more help, managers should exercise flexibility as much as possible, so that they can consult professional mental health services, such as counselling.
As people managers, we should familiarise ourselves with relevant resources that staff can access easily. For example, Civil Service College has a period contract with a wellness centre to provide coaching and counselling services which employees can book, with assurance that all data will be kept confidential. CARE4U,5 a PSD mental health initiative implemented service-wide, makes accessing mental health services anonymous and convenient. The site also features resources for supervisors about promoting team mental wellbeing, highlighting the important role managers play in supporting a healthy environment for their team.
We must take care of our mental health as intentionally as we do our physical health.
#2. Be supportive and keep confidentiality, while maintaining the team’s performance
A manager’s job is not easy, and it has gotten more complex in the wake of the pandemic. We must uphold performance and standards while tending to the wellbeing of team members—whether we are together or apart. While we keep the confidence of a team member in need and do what we can to be supportive of their recovery, we remain responsible for the rest of the team and the goals of the organisation. This is not a comfortable tension to hold.
It may be easier to tell the team that their colleague is dealing with 'some issues' and that is why we are redistributing the work. However, we can never be sure of the interpersonal consequences amongst team members. While we can speak more openly about mental health in the post-pandemic workplace, the stigma surrounding individuals undergoing treatment for mental health remains in our culture.6 Therefore, we must respect our staff’s privacy while managing the expectations of the rest of the team.
In one case, what I found helpful was to set up a routine and structure to facilitate information exchange within the team. Specifically, the team had weekly check-ins where we shared progress updates on projects and new information or resources. The aim was to offer everyone in the team visibility of each other’s work-in-progress so they could be assured that everyone was contributing towards the deliverables. Doing this also held the affected staff member accountable to his peers for the tasks he was responsible for.
An exception to this is when a staff member discloses information which suggests they may cause harm to themselves or others. Such instances may occur when colleagues share particularly bleak thoughts about life, or if they experience personal tragedies. As a manager, if you feel that a team member is in imminent danger, or at risk of putting others in danger, alert relevant parties such as HR or qualified health professionals.7, 8
#3. Define boundaries even as you stay supportive
Even as we support and facilitate our team member’s efforts to achieve better mental health, we must define and maintain boundaries to hold the employee responsible for their recovery and work performance. To do this, an approach I have found helpful is to show compassion while maintaining the dignity of the employee. For example, time off from work or flexible work arrangements can be discussed in advance and agreed upon. Deadlines can also be negotiated and managed around the staff’s treatment schedule as much as possible. In most cases, individuals undergoing treatment for their mental health can continue to function effectively at the workplace.
An important lesson I have learnt is the need to be honest and upfront about possible impact on the employee’s performance appraisal. The manager is responsible for the team’s performance and fair appraisal of each member’s contribution. Have this difficult conversation once you and your team member are ready to have an open talk about it. Assure the employee that they will be supported on their journey towards better mental health. At the same time, communicate clearly that this may mean they could receive a less favourable appraisal for their performance compared to their counterparts.
#4. It helps to build on pre-existing trust
Managers do not have to be ‘friends’ with team members to provide support. In most instances, knowing someone well enough to realise that they are not being their usual self is a powerful first step to arresting the deterioration of their sense of wellbeing. Being able to pick up such signals requires some degree of social connection and familiarity. Building trust and goodwill with team members can allow potentially sensitive conversations to take place down the road , when they become necessary. It always helps that we trust each other to come from a place of authenticity and good intentions.
Once, I approached a team member for a private conversation to express concern, not knowing what to expect. Later, when the individual felt better, she shared that she trusted that I cared for her as a person, which assured her that she would be supported as she took better care of herself. I believe this shared sense of trust greatly facilitated the conversations with this team member and boosted her energy to continue showing up at work.
Building trust and goodwill with team members can allow potentially sensitive conversations to take place down the road.
#5. Respect and dignity go a long way
The journey towards better mental health is not the same for everyone and does not follow a linear path. In most cases, people do become better with the right help. In the meantime, it is the manager’s job to provide resources the affected employee needs to get work done and perform well enough to keep their job. In fact, work can play a crucial role in a person’s mental wellbeing by giving structure and routine to everyday life and contributing to a sense of purpose.9
As a manager, you might review the employee’s list of assignments and tasks and reprioritise where possible. It may help to schedule frequent and quick task-based check-ins so both manager and employee remain accountable to one another. You may need to temporarily step up your monitoring and feedback during this period.
People bring their whole selves to work: the personal and professional; the happy and sad. Approach team members with respect and hold space for them to reach out for help with dignity. While it may take time, a manager’s impact can be life changing. These practices can go a long way in nurturing conditions where people feel resilient and energised to bring their best selves to work.
People bring their whole selves to work. Approach team members with respect and hold space for them to reach out for help with dignity.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sueann Soon is Senior Researcher at the Institute of Leadership and Organisation Development, Civil Service College. She has more than a decade’s experience in managing teams and has recently investigated issues of team effectiveness, leader development, and the impact of hybrid work arrangements on teams and organisations.
- Shonna Waters, “Mental Health in the Workplace: Why Is It Important and What Support Is Available?”, May 21, 2021, BetterUp, accessed March 10, 2022, https://www.betterup.com/blog/mental-health-in-the-workplace.
- Jason Kraus, “Happy Employees Are often More Creative and Productive”, November 15, 2020, Linkedin, accessed March 17, 2022, https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/happy-employees-often-more-creative-productive-jason-kraus.
- Aurora de Souza Watters, “Burnout: A Potential Wildfire We Must Learn to Contain and Prevent in Our Organisations” (literature review, Civil Service College, 2022).
- “Your Wellbeing, Our Priority”, accessed January 14, 2022, https://gccprod.sharepoint.com/sites/psd-wellness-at-work.
- Justin Ong, “The Big Read: Enough is Enough. Just What Does It Take to Break Mental Health Stigma at the Workplace?” November 28, 2020, Today, accessed March 18, 2022, https://www.todayonline.com/big-read/big-read-enough-enough-just-what-does-it-take-break-mental-health-stigma-workplace.
- Heads up (website), accessed March 18, 2022, https://www.headsup.org.au/supporting-others/if-you-manage-others/suicide-and-suicide-prevention.
- CIPD, “Responding to Suicide Risk in the Workplace”, June 2021, accessed March 18, 2022, https://www.cipd.co.uk/Images/responding-to-suicide-risk-in-the-workplace-guide-June2021_tcm18-96241.pdf.
- See Note 7.