Mental Health

Mental health & middle management: How to support employees without overstepping

Managers aren’t therapists, but at some organizations, they bear the burden of trying to identify and solve workers’ mental health concerns.
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Francis Scialabba

7 min read

When Amy Cooper Hakim worked as a mid-level HR manager for a Fortune 500 company, she had a boss who always finished his day by ensuring she had wrapped up hers.

“[He] would literally put his body physically in my doorframe, and he would not leave until he saw me turn off my system,” Hakim told HR Brew. “If he had to get in the car to go, he would call to make sure that I actually was on my way home, too.”

Hakim, who coaches managers and co-authored Working with Difficult People, a book that teaches employees to tackle tough conversations at work, believes that bosses like these are “very rare.”

“We don’t see that,” Hakim said. “But that kind of feeling made me at the time really dedicated to that company, and committed to my boss.”

Burnout nation

As America’s workforce continues to grapple with the mental health fallout from the pandemic and HR fights to retain employees, managers like Hakim’s could find they’re in demand. A 2018 study within the hospitality industry found that employees who viewed their bosses negatively were more likely to intend to quit: people quit bosses, not jobs.

But managers trying to support employees are also struggling. In a Gallup poll released last fall, managers’ levels of stress, physical well-being, and work-life balance were, in some cases, reported to be even worse than their direct reports’. Thirty-five percent of people managers reported being burned out “very often” or “always,” compared to just 27% for individuals.

In some cases, this could be because managers are working overtime in order to take the load off of their direct reports.“I know a lab manager that worked 100 days straight, which goes against everything we know. [She] is an exceptional people manager; she came in so that her staff could have time off,” Christine Nielsen, CEO of the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science (CSMLS), told HR Brew. “Most managers or supervisors…they can’t emotionally, mentally, even physically.”

Nielsen said that her labs, which process Covid-19 tests, feel the urgency of their work now more than ever and are stretched thin by production demands and staffing disruptions. One lab had 42 microbiologists out with Covid in a week, according to Nielsen. She cited CSMLS research where managers reported finding their work stressful “always” or “often” at a combined rate of 82%.

“Everyone says they have too much work to do anything well,’' Nielsen told HR Brew. “So those small things like stopping by to make sure you’re doing okay can sometimes get left behind.”

When managers can check in, Nielsen noted that a tension can arise between choosing the best solution for the employee and the immediate need for staffing.

“When we see signs of stress, and people report that to us, we need to remind them about the employment assistance programs and advocate for time off,” Nielsen said. “But then it’s the same lab manager that has to call you two days later and ask you to come in on your time off. It’s a really tight rope.”

Taking steps (not oversteps)

To manage employee burnout without losing your own mind as a manager, experts recommend preparing for these conversations in advance.

“The first step in any organization is for that manager to go to HR asking, ‘What programs or processes are in place to help to make sure that individuals can get the care that they need?’” Hakim advised. If the programs do not exist, it’s time to build them and ensure they are “streamlined and shared throughout” an organization.

Another step is teaching managers to use the tools. Nielsen admitted that “lots of people move into lab management just being really great bench techs and great scientists. It doesn’t mean they have the people management [skills].”

In some cases, managers receive training on how to have empathetic conversations through resources like “Notice.Talk.Act. at Work,” an e-module from the American Psychiatric Association’s Center for Workplace Mental Health. However, managers usually aren’t trained therapists. Nielsen cautions that when “stress and burnout” are due to “anxiety and depression [or] mental illness,” the conversations become “very delicate.”

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Perhaps because the conversations are delicate in nature, some companies are partnering with apps that employ mental health professionals to better serve employees (though employers can’t force workers to seek mental health treatments). According to Wellable Labs, this year 90% of employers surveyed plan to increase their investments in mental health programs, and 72% of those employers expect that these programs will be virtual.

The growth and merger last year of Headspace for Work and Ginger, two apps catering to enterprises that offer mindfulness and meditation exercises, is likely evidence of this trend. According toDésirée Pascual, the chief people experience officer of Headspace, those brands are the fastest growing areas of the business, with a 59% YoY growth in employer bookings. Other meditation apps, like Calm, and therapy apps, like BetterHelp and Shine, also offer enterprise packages.

Talk different to me

The sources HR Brew spoke to emphasized the importance of personalizing a manager’s approach to the employee's needs.

Eric Coly, the founder and CEO of the app Ayana Therapy, is one person attempting to do so. “Ayana” is the Bengali word for “mirror,” and Coly says the app lets marginalized and intersectional people “see [themselves] in the room.” The app operates in 42 states to match a user with one of 400 licensed psychologists based on questions about ethnicity, gender, and orientation.

The enterprise version of the app both offers one-on-one therapy sessions for employees and also a curriculum that teaches managers to talk to diverse employees. Coly said these services help “employees who work for corporations and don't know how to ask for help. Or, when they ask for help, they can't be seen or can’t be heard properly.”

In the same vein, Hakim noted conversations about mental health ought to be “differentiated.”

“We have to recognize that some people need different things in order to be productive on the job… just like someone might have a love language in a relationship, we have a work language at work, we have to know what it is that that that individual needs,” Hakim said.

Without proper training, it could be difficult to identify this “work language.” When in doubt, Hakim advocated for leaving these conversations to HR. She said “touchy feely” conversations between struggling employees and untrained managers may not be helpful.

“I can imagine if I really need a job, and I need that to put food on the table, and my manager says, ‘Hey, are you okay?’ I would say, ‘Yeah, I'm fine.’ I'm just gonna keep on going,” Hakim hypothesized, noting that someone with training could intervene in that scenario.

How do you do, fellow kids?

Similarly, Nielsen wants managers to be aware of generational divides in seeking and accepting help. She finds younger workers much more likely to advocate for clear work-life boundaries and burnout protections.

“We had a huge snowstorm happen in Prince Edward Island, and the new generation of workers were like, ‘I have to leave, my dog needs to be fed, and I’ve been here for eight hours.’ And the baby boomers pack a bag and plan to sleep at the hospital for a week.”

According to Nielsen, baby boomers’ worldview may make them less comfortable discussing mental health with a boss or accepting a mental health day. That conversation could be interpreted as a “weakness”: “‘You’re judging me. You know, I’m amazing at my job. I’ve never taken a sick day in 35 years. Why would I take one now?’” she posited. “It’s like a badge of honor.”

Whatever route companies choose, Nielsen stressed taking mental health seriously. She said the laboratories she oversees have “more people off for mental health issues than we’ve had at any time.” She says these absences are “as important as a broken foot. This is as important as going for a cancer test. It’s what your person needs to do to keep their batteries charged.”

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.