Here's what leaders are concerned about when it comes to mental health in the workplace

Marie-Josée Michaud

Marie-Josée Michaud

Author, strategist in workplace psychological health, leadership and human resources mobilization.

Do our leaders have the tools and resources to respond to the "post mental health discussion with the employee"?

We will soon be at the post-Covid-19 stage. Many statistics currently show that psychological distress has increased and may continue to do so in the face of the anticipated difficulties of economic recovery. The world is afraid. Fear of losing their jobs if they haven't already, fear of not finding a job, fear of a new wave of contagion, fear of accumulating debts... I think I can stop here and say, etc.

In the workplace, we will be asking managers and leaders to be even more present with their employees. I have seen information and videos circulating to this effect and part of me is happy to see that something is being attempted and part of me is disappointed that the content is so minimalist and puts, once again, all the responsibility on the manager or leader to carry out interventions that are, after all, delicate, without having the tools and resources necessary to respond to theafter-discussion with the employee!

What is being done concretely to support the leader who is being asked :

  1. If you see that the person doesn't seem to be themselves, ask them what is going on.
  2. Open your door to difficult discussions, you will see, it will probably help the person who is suffering.
  3. Empathize with your employees who are experiencing difficulties.
  4. Sometimes just talking about it will make a difference.

Is it? What if talking about it doesn't make all the difference, or isn't enough, or doesn't move from empathy to compassion, and thus to action? What then happens to the manager and his or her ability to maintain his or her own sanity? I don't know about you reading this, but for me, when I open my door with empathy and listening, while trying to give hope, and realize that there is nothing more I can do, my feelings of helplessness and fear of not being seen as competent, responsible, and trustworthy can sometimes be difficult to overcome! If it happens once in a while, that's one thing, but if it becomes a recurring phenomenon, what happens?

Neuroscience in the last year has shown that we can no longer talk about compassion fatiguebut rather of empathy fatigue.

Empathy fatigue is triggered because, by dint of visiting this little black cloud that is familiar to us and that allows us to connect to the other person's little black cloud, we risk creating psychological distress, especially if the manager is unable to move from listening to action in order to help the employee with whom he or she has connected! And yes, if our brain does not perceive that we will eventually be able to find a solution, it will trigger the vicious circle of feeling in perpetual danger, which may in the long run affect the manager's psychological health and self-esteem.

Mind you, I'm not saying we should back off and not try to help our employees or not open our door to have these difficult discussions, nor am I saying to bury our heads in the sand and hope that suddenly that employee will get better! I'm just saying that we need to stop giving our managers only half of the solution and hope that the rest will miraculously resolve itself and if it doesn't, it's the manager's fault for not being empathetic or competent enough.

Leaders are cold and clumsy when dealing with mental health issues in the workplace

Let's stop pointing fingers at leaders who hesitate to intervene or who intervene too much or clumsily and instead try to understand their reality in order to help them.

Between 2017 and 2018, I implemented a program for the Canadian government called GàG, Manager to Manager. The GàG Mental Health Network, launched in May 2018 is made up of experienced leaders who have been carefully screened, trained and are available to help managers foster a psychologically safe and healthy workplace for their employees. The Network was created to address the targeted need in 2017 for an informal, safe and confidential platform to explore options for the challenges they were facing with their employees.

Let's go beyond traditional training and offer an informal, safe and confidential platform

At the very beginning of this initiative, I required the time and resources necessary to identify the real needs of managers in order to bring out their fears regarding their role in relation to the psychological health of employees. I knew that these fears would prevent them, despite all the training in the world or all the Bell let's talk type campaigns , from talking or asking for help when necessary. I knew this because before I became a workplace psychological health strategist, I was a manager myself for almost two decades and was affected by depression. So I understand very well how stigma and self-stigma can sabotage one's willingness to seek help when one fears the impact on one's own career.

After several pan-Canadian meetings and a survey, here is the 5 fears the most important ones that have been identified as being sensed and experienced by the participants :

  1. Fear of being judged as incompetent / weak as a manager.
  2. Fear of not having time to follow up on the actions to be taken with the employee in difficulty, given the workload.
  3. Fear of not finding the advice needed to help my employees and don't necessarily trust the person giving advice.
  4. Fear of retaliation for seeking advice or effects on their career opportunities.
  5. Fear of going to HR or senior management due to bad past experiences.

In light of this information, it was agreed that it was crucial to create an environment where managers could seek out tools, information and resources with impunity. And that's what the GàG program offers. Here's what one of the 30 ambassadors who donates her time and experience to EDSC (Department of Employment and Social Development Canada) through this great initiative said in 2018:

"The management community has unique challenges and I know from my own experience that no one has been able to help me more when I needed it than another manager," says Anu.

Dare to put aside your own professional ambitions in order to promote what already exists

Two years later, I am amazed that the advice given to managers by the federal government's specialized mental health centers is still so minimalist. So much work, money, passion and time has been invested in projects like the GàG and I can't even begin to confirm that it is understood, optimized and used to its full potential.

I am not naïve and I understand very well the reality of these large entities and rest assured that during my mandates, I have been in contact with very professional managers, with a real desire to make a difference and who worked very hard! There is also this other reality, where no one talks to each other, no one listens to each other and where everyone wants to be the first to have thought of it, in order to promote their own career. There is also the important turnover of personnel and the attrition that have an impact that should not be neglected and that make it so that, despite the governance in place, projects or programs fall between two chairs because the new arrivals do not understand the scope or the relevance of the project, or they simply do not respond to their own need to make a remarkable start, following the freshly obtained promotion!

There is also this other reality, the one where no one talks to each other, no one listens to each other and everyone wants to be the first to have thought of it, in order to promote their own career. MJ Michaud

In this time of crisis, let's be strategic and efficient because there is no time, energy or resources to waste

Why do we just give basic instructions to our managers or leaders instead of connecting them with resources that have already been through the process and understand the fears felt when dealing with the psychological health of their employees? Especially when you yourself are an exhausted leader who feels like you are holding the world at arm's length?

In this time of scarce resources, be strategic in identifying what can immediately and truly help your managers. Take inventory, ask questions, look at what already exists HERE and ELSE, in that other department or government entity! Improve if you must, but stop wasting time, money and resources on videos, surveys and conclusions that have probably already been made and sometimes have already generated great initiatives that will only require a third of the investment required to reinvent the wheel in order to be disseminated. Be the one to save and optimize resources.

There is no time to lose, it is here and now that help is needed and the solutions already exist for those who can see them, or should I say: for those who are not blinded by the danger of not being better than the other!