Discrimination against employees because of their health — including mental health — is illegal. While HR can make sure the right supports are in place, managers should also make sure that stigma isn’t impacting their day-to-day decisions about their teams. For example, how can a manager prevent their personal views on mental health from biasing their task assignment or performance reviews of an employee who’s disclosed a mental health challenge? To reduce the impact of stigma after a mental health disclosure, managers should acknowledge their biases, lead with curiosity, solve collaboratively, and promote a supportive work culture.
Since the pandemic began, more employees have been experiencing mental health challenges and talking about their mental health at work. This means more managers have insight into their team members’ mental health. While that insight is helpful in providing support, it also raises an important question: How can managers make fair decisions after an employee shares a mental health challenge?
Discrimination against employees because of their health — including mental health — is illegal. While HR can make sure the right supports are in place, managers should also make sure that stigma isn’t impacting 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 of which is that employees are safe to talk about their mental health — without fearing repercussions. Here are four ways managers can make sure they’re treating employees experiencing mental health challenges fairly.
Acknowledge your personal bias.
The first step is to examine your own experience with and knowledge of mental health challenges. Megan Rogers, licensed marriage and family therapist and member of Mind Share Partners’ advisory council, suggests that you “start by recognizing and acknowledging that you as a manager probably will have bias, instead of ignoring it.”
One way to do this is by reviewing your personal lived experience with mental health. For example, have you or a family member or friend experienced mental health in a certain way? If so, how has that impacted your view of mental health or a particular diagnosis? As a manager, expanding your knowledge and skillsets about mental health and identity can help you recognize biases you may have.
Bonnie Hayden Cheng, associate professor of management and strategy at Hong Kong University, reminds us of another way to check our assumptions: “Flip the script to challenge your biases in the moment. Do this by asking yourself, ‘What if I was in this person’s shoes?’ or ‘What if this was a family member?’”
Finally, as a manager, it’s important to remember that some mental health experiences can have positive impacts, too. My own experience with depression symptoms during my pregnancies, for instance, taught me to be more empathetic and self-aware. Many of my colleagues also credit their challenges with mental health as having helped them develop important professional and social skills, such as connection and drive. These positive outcomes don’t negate the difficulties that come with mental health challenges, certainly, but recognizing individual strengths that come from them can reframe and reduce negative bias for managers in decision making.
Lead with curiosity.
If an employee shares that they’re 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 off or their performance is uncharacteristically low, lead with inquiry: “I’ve noticed that you haven’t been as engaged in meetings as usual. How are you doing?” Or, if an employee has shared about how grief is impacting their focus, you could say, “I know you’ve mentioned this time of year is difficult for you. In what ways can we support you?”
If you’re making decisions about project assignments or roles, rather than asking yourself, “Can they do this thing?” ask, “How could they be successful in doing this thing?” If an employee shares that they’re feeling anxiety, for instance, don’t immediately assume they can’t take on stretch projects or leadership roles. Instead, consider what supports they might need to be successful in taking on that work. “Tying a direct line between a mental health challenge to shifts in work performance isn’t always accurate,” Christine Coleman, licensed marriage and family therapist and member of Mind Share Partners’ advisory council, shares. “As we grow in our empathy, we can be mindful to avoid using an identifiable factor like a mental health challenge as the sole reason for something to be happening. We won’t fully know until we extend ourselves to know the whole person more.”
Leading with curiosity can support both the individual’s and your team goals. Rogers tells managers to consider that “as a manager, part of my job is to manage the success of the company, and it is also part of my job to manage and take care of the people within that company.” Rather than feeling like those are opposing responsibilities, according to Rogers, “wisdom comes from looking at both together.” She adds, “Recognize that it doesn’t serve a manager or the company not to support this person.” By leading with curiosity, you reduce the opportunity to make false assumptions about how someone is feeling or why they’re acting a certain way.
The employee is your best resource for understanding their experience — no one knows how mental health impacts their work better than they do. “Everyone is struggling differently and at different times, so a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work,” says Cheng.
If you’ve built a trusting relationship with an employee, you can have productive conversations about how mental health impacts them specifically. For some, working might be helpful during a mental health challenge; for others, taking a break from work is the right thing. Coleman suggests asking, “I’m curious about how this challenge impacts your work and what I and the team can do to support you through that.”
Ideally, an individual, their manager, and HR will collaborate to find a solution when necessary. An individual knows their needs best, a manager knows the team’s needs, and HR understands what the company can offer and how to avoid discrimination. This group should consider a broad range of adaptations and accommodations and recognize that it might take some iteration.
Create a team culture of psychological safety.
Reducing mental health bias is not just a one-time event. Managers can think proactively about creating a team culture where mental health is a normalized and psychologically safe topic. One of the most meaningful ways managers can do this is to share their own stories. When managers lead with vulnerability and share personal experiences, they clear the way for employees to open up about what they’re going through.
Managers can also promote a collaborative team culture. This could involve creating opportunities for genuine connection, giving appreciation for teamwork, and modeling supportive behavior. Cheng’s research shows that when colleagues had a low level of rivalry, they were more likely to respond to expressions of anxiety with support rather than ostracization — that is, employees with positive relationships were more likely to be helpful to a person experiencing anxiety. This research, she says, “has broader repercussions 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 should work proactively to reduce mental health bias by questioning their assumptions and creating a collaborative, psychologically safe team culture. When working with an employee directly, managers should lead with curiosity and work collaboratively for solutions with the impacted employee and human resources.