What scares managers about having to address their employees’ mental health?

Marie-Josée Michaud

Marie-Josée Michaud

Author and strategist in workplace mental health, leadership and human resources mobilization

The “post-COVID-19” period is upon us. Leaders are being asked to show even more empathy toward their employees to prevent psychological distress. But do they have the proper tools or the necessary resources to handle follow-up discussions with employees on their mental health?

We’re approaching the post-COVID-19 phase. Plenty of statistics are currently demonstrating a rise in psychological distress that is likely to continue in face of looming challenges surrounding the economic recovery. Everyone’s scared. Scared of losing their job (if they haven’t already), scared of not finding a new job, scared about a new wave of contagion, scared about mounting debts… I think I’ll stop here and leave it at “etc.”

In the workplace, we’re going to require managers and leaders to be even more present to their employees. I’ve seen information and videos circulating on this topic, and part of me is happy to see efforts being made in this area. But another part of me is disappointed to find that the content barely scratches the surface and, yet again, places all the onus on the leader to carry out what are clearly delicate interventions, without having at their disposal the tools and resources they need to handle the follow-up discussion with employees!

What concrete steps are we taking to support managers who are being given the following directives:

  1. If you notice that your employee isn’t themselves, ask them what’s going on.
  2. Show that your door is open for difficult discussions. You’ll see, it will probably help the person who is suffering.
  3. Be empathetic toward your employees who are going through difficult times.
  4. Sometimes, just talking about things makes all the difference.

Really? What if talking about it doesn’t make all the difference, or isn’t enough? What if you get stuck and can’t move from empathy to compassion and, ultimately, action? What about the manager and their capacity to preserve their own mental health? I don’t know about you, but when I open my door with empathy and presence, attempting to give the person hope, and I realize there’s nothing more I can do, my feelings of powerlessness and fear of being perceived as incompetent, irresponsible or undependable can be difficult to overcome! It’s one thing if this happens occasionally, but it’s quite another if this scenario becomes a recurring theme.

In the last year, neuroscience has demonstrated a shift from compassion fatigue to empathy fatigue

Empathy fatigue occurs because, in the process of visiting that familiar dark cloud in ourselves that enables us to relate to the other person’s little dark cloud, we run the risk of creating psychological distress, especially if we don’t know how to move the conversation from empathy to action in order to help the employee with whom we have formed a connection. What’s more, if our brain doesn’t register that we will eventually find a solution, it will launch us into a vicious cycle centred on feelings of perpetual danger. Over the long run, this can impact managers’ mental health and self-esteem.

Don’t get me wrong! I’m not saying that we should go backwards and not try to help our employees or not open our doors to difficult discussions. Nor am I saying that we should bury our heads in the sand, hoping the employee will feel better! I’m simply saying that we need to stop offering half-solutions to our managers, expecting the rest to magically fall into place, or blaming the manager for not being empathetic or skilled enough when things don’t go right.

Let’s stop pointing the finger at leaders who hesitate to intervene or intervene too much or awkwardly, and instead try to understand their reality so we can help them.

Between 2017 and 2018, I set up a program for the Canadian government called the Manager to Manager (M2M) Mental Health Network. Launched in May 2018, it is composed of carefully selected experienced directors who have been specially trained and are available to help managers foster a psychologically healthy and safe work environment for their employees. The Network was created to meet a need identified in 2017 to have access to a secure and confidential informal platform that would enable them to study different options regarding challenges they were having to address with their employees.

Why go beyond mental health training to offer managers an informal, secure and confidential platform?

At the outset of this initiative, I insisted on being given the necessary time and resources to identify managers’ actual needs in order to uncover their fears around their role with respect to the psychological health of their employees. I knew that, even if they received all the training in the world or took part in campaigns like Bell Let’s Talk, these fears would prevent them from voicing their difficulties or seeking help when they needed it. I knew that, because before becoming a workplace mental health strategist, I myself was a manager for close to two decades, and I experienced depression. So, I fully understand how stigmatization and self-stigmatization can sabotage your will to seek help, if you fear it might have repercussions for your career.

The results from discussions conducted across Canada and a survey revealed 5 fears that were most commonly felt and experienced by participants:

  1. Fear of being judged as an incompetent or weak manager.
  2. Fear of not having the time to follow up on the actions put in place with the employee in difficulty, given the manager’s workload.
  3. Fear of not finding the advice they needed to help their employees and of not trusting the person giving them the advice.
  4. Fear of reprisals or impacts on career opportunities after seeking advice.
  5. Fear of going to HR or senior management based on negative experiences in the past.

In light of this information, we determined that it was crucial to create an environment in which managers could seek tools, information and resources with total impunity. And that’s what M2M does. In 2018, one of the 30 ambassadors who offers her time and expertise to the Ministry of Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) as part of this wonderful initiative, had this to say:

“The management community has unique challenges, and I know from my own experience that nobody could have been a better help to me in my time of need than another manager,” said Anu.

Two years later, I’m stunned to see that the advice given to managers by the federal government’s specialized mental health centres is still so limited. Yet, so much work, money, passion and time were invested in projects like M2M, and I couldn’t even tell you whether the latter is understood or used to its full potential.

I’m not naive, and I understand the reality of these massive entities. Trust me, throughout my mandates, I have worked with some extremely professional managers who truly wanted to make a difference and were very dedicated! But, there’s this other reality in which nobody talks or listens to one another, and everyone wants to prove themselves in order to advance their own career. Significant employee turnover and attrition have also had an impact that can’t be ignored such that, despite the oversight put in place, projects and programs end up slipping through the cracks – either because new employees don’t grasp the scale or the relevance of such programs, or because they simply don’t align with the person’s need to make an impression after being newly promoted!

There’s this other reality in which nobody talks or listens to one another, and everyone wants to prove themselves in order to advance their own career. MJ Michaud

In this post-COVID era, here’s what I think would be a concrete paradigm shift

Why be content to offer basic guidelines to our managers and leaders when we can connect them with resources who have first-hand experience with the issues and understand the fears managers face when having to deal with a mental health problem in one of their employees? Especially if you, yourself, are a leader that’s exhausted and feel as though you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders.

In these times when resources are stretched thin, be strategic in identifying what could immediately and concretely help your managers. Take stock, ask questions, and look at what already exists IN PLACE or ELSEWHERE – say in that other government department or agency! Make improvements if needed, but don’t waste time, money and resources on videos, surveys and conclusions that have already been conducted elsewhere and have resulted in some great initiatives that would require but a third of the investment required to reinvent the wheel and disseminate a new program. Be the one who saves money and optimizes resources.

There’s no time to lose! It’s here and now that help is needed, and solutions already exist for those who can see them – or should I say, for those who are not blinded by the risk of not being better than everyone else!