When Your Employee Discloses a Mental Health Condition

When one of your direct reports has the courage to talk with you about their mental health condition, how you respond is critical. What do you say right away? What questions do you ask? How do you decide what accommodations, if any, to make?


What the Experts Say

It’s important to keep in mind that the employee likely had to overcome a lot of fear to talk with you about this topic. Therefore, how you handle these interactions is critical. The good news is that these can be productive conversations, as long as you follow a few pieces of advice.


Thank them for telling you

Start by acknowledging the effort it took for the employee to tell you. But don’t make it a big deal. Your goal should be to normalize the topic as much as possible. Your response should be consistent with your relationship. This is not the time to act like a friend if you don’t have a close, trusting relationship. Nor should you be distant if you’ve been close up to this point. In other words, treat the person and this conversation the same way you have in the past.


Listen

Give the person space to say what they want to say and tell you what they need in terms of flexibility or accommodations. Pay attention to your nonverbal cues. You can adopt a curious mindset, but hold back from asking a ton of questions, especially ones that require that the person disclose more information than you need. For example, you don’t need to know what the disability they have is called, or how long they’ve had it. Let them lead the way in how much they want to tell you.


Tell them you want to support them — but don’t overpromise

It can be tempting to tell the person (especially if they’re a high performer) that you’ll do whatever it takes to support them, but you want to tread carefully. Don’t make assumptions. If they’re asking for time off or changes to their work schedule, be careful not to overpromise. Instead, make clear that you intend to partner with them to sort it out.


Don’t make it about you

You or someone you’re close with may have been through something similar, but don’t focus the conversation on you. That said, sometimes sharing a personal story can help to normalize the topic. If you have the kind of relationship with the employee where you share personal stories, just be sure that what you share is hopeful. Don’t talk about someone who never got better or had to quit their job, and don’t downplay their experience by insisting everything will be OK because it was for you or someone else.


Maintain confidentiality

Reassure the employee that you will make every effort to honor confidentiality but that you may need to speak with HR. If the person is uncomfortable with that or worried about having something go into their employment file, you might say, “I may have to tell them eventually, but I can talk in generalities, without naming you, at first.” This includes ensuring that the employee gets the legal protections they’re entitled to avoid discrimination as well as access to all the company’s resources and possible accommodations. If you’re unsure about local regulations, feel free to first talk to HR without using the employee’s name.


Consider what changes you can make

There is a variety of things that your employee may want or need so that they can take care of their mental health. These might include keeping different hours, working alone or in a group, taking time off to see a doctor, or having occasional “mental health” days. Whether or not you can grant these requests will often depend on your company’s existing policies. If you need to make accommodations for an employee, it’s critical to involve HR (more on that below), who will be familiar with the national and local laws that determine what you’re legally allowed to do.


Some of the changes made to working hours or workload might impact other people on your team. Talk with the employee about how they would prefer you address any concerns that come up from their colleagues.


Ask for help from others

This person came to you because you’re their manager. Don’t offer health or legal advice. And don’t try to figure this out on your own. Whenever possible, work with HR to come up with possible solutions — and let the employee know that’s what you will do. In small companies or those without a supportive HR department, it may be up to you to figure out what you can do. Research shows that smaller companies often have the ability to offer more flexibility, but it can also be more challenging because you may not be able to afford what they’re asking for.


Refer them to other resources, if available

There may be other resources inside your company that you can refer them to. You can also direct them to any mental health benefits that your company offers, such as therapy or meditation apps. If you don’t have those resources, you can suggest they contact an EAP (employee assistance program) but keep in mind that not all EAPs are high quality, and while they can play an important role in supporting the employee, it’s not sufficient on its own. Keep in mind that the clinical care is best left to a professional but you are still responsible, as their manager, for the employee’s work experience.


Make yourself “tell-able”

Ideally, we’d all work for a manager whom we felt comfortable talking to when we needed help balancing work with our mental health. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. But you can make it more likely that people will come to you by being a role model. And, if you hold a powerful position in your organization, sharing your personal experience with mental health, whether it’s addressing it directly or, say, openly blocking out your calendar to go to therapy, can go a long way toward normalizing the discussion in your organization and demonstrating that it’s possible to succeed at the highest levels when you have a mental health condition.


Principles to Remember

Do:

  • Follow the person’s lead in terms of what they want to share.

  • Think carefully about what type of flexibility you can offer them.

  • Make clear that you may need to discuss the situation with HR, and therefore may not be able to keep the conversation confidential.

Don’t:

  • Make a big deal about the disclosure — it’s important to normalize the conversation.

  • Overpromise what accommodations you’ll be able to give the person until you’ve had time to think it through and talk to HR.

  • Hide your own experience with mental health challenges, especially if you’re a senior leader.

Read the complete HBR article here

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