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How can your communication lead by example to support your team's mental health?

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Mental health is a topic we talk about now more than ever, but it's nothing new. It affects most people in our community, either directly or indirectly; it affects us as individuals; and it affects our teams’ happiness, productivity, and success.

As someone who's had their fair share of mental health issues, I've always felt it important to openly discuss mental wellness. Over the years, I've found a few helpful methods for creating an environment where your team members can experience psychological safety, and bring their whole selves to work.

If it's been a tough week, call it out and take a mental health day

We've all been there; you go through a rough patch, and one morning you find that you just can’t work that day. You hop on Slack and let the team know that you have ‘a terrible headache’ or maybe you ‘might have caught something’, and you go back to bed and hide under the covers. Everyone on your team has done the same (some with more creative lies than others).

One of those days, I stopped myself before typing out the lie and just told my team that it had been a tough week, so I was going to take a few days off to care for my mental health. Sending that message was a very scary thing to do; will my team lose trust in me? Will they think I'm not capable? Will this negatively affect my team's morale?

I did it anyway, and what happened instead was wonderful. People started reaching out more to talk about their own struggles, make self-care suggestions, ask about my mental care routines, or send me their favorite memes. It opened a door that let us all be a little more human, and enabled a culture of trust and openness that allowed me to learn a lot more about the people I worked with every day.

Having said that, I found it challenging to take a mental health day on a day where I had scheduled 1:1s. ‘Never cancel a 1:1’ is pretty deeply ingrained from all of my manager training! But, you would cancel your 1:1 if you had strep throat, and so you should definitely cancel it if your emotional reserves are empty. It is important to remember that our job as leaders and people managers require emotional labor. You cannot give your full attention, and be present and helpful if you are mentally unwell. A rescheduled 1:1 where you bring your best self will be much more productive. But do make sure you reach out to your direct report personally, apologize for the rescheduling, and make yourself available if they have any emergencies.

Don't force the mental health conversation, but open the door and be there if someone walks through it

After my message, I started seeing ‘taking a mental health day’ appear more in our team Slack channel, as well as the more generic ’not feeling great’. To me, this was a huge win. This level of honesty builds empathy and understanding across the team, showing that we're all just humans, and that we all have good and bad days. 

You’ll find that some people on your team are still hesitant to take that day off, though. As leaders, I believe that part of your job is to encourage people to acknowledge their mental health, and take any time off if they need it. You don't need to wait for them to tell you they're not doing well. If you're tuned in enough, you can probably tell when your teammate is experiencing burnout or isn't feeling their best. Remind them that mental health is as important as physical health, and urge them to take a day or a week off. Encourage them to call it a mental health break if they're comfortable, but don't push it. You should also make sure they’re not using their vacation days for this, just as they wouldn’t use their vacation days if they were home with strep throat.

Be ready for them to reject your idea, to accept it and open up about their mental state, or to avoid it altogether. Whatever they choose to do, respect their choice.

Listen and share, but avoid advising

If the trust is there, your team member might open up to you about their mental health struggles. It's crucial to remember that they are being incredibly vulnerable with you here, and that what you say or do will impact your relationship’s trust.

Do not, no matter what, minimize their struggles. This will deplete their trust in you, and could also have negative effects on their mental health. You should also avoid offering unsolicited solutions or advice; you likely don’t know the whole story, and they might feel misunderstood. Your best bet is to listen, empathize, and, if you're comfortable, share similar stories of your own.

Through a particularly rough period for me, I mentioned to my manager that I was having issues with focus and productivity due to some medication adjustments. My manager listened, understood, and shared with me that they had also experienced the struggles of getting mental health medication just right. I gained an immense amount of trust in my manager at that moment, and knew that they were there to support me through any needed re-prioritization until I felt better. Going forward, it was a lot easier for me to be open about my mental health to my manager.

After that meeting, I also let my team know to be patient with me as I worked through this adjustment period. You might think that sharing your struggles will make your team believe in you less, or that they will feel lost or unsupported. However, over and over again, my team told me that it made them feel safe, normal, and allowed them to bring more of themselves to work, because ‘if my manager can do this, then so can I’.

Therapy is the best therapy  

If you are able to, and can afford it, get a therapist. Taking care of yourself is essential to leading other people with passion and empathy. Finding the right therapist is not an easy task, but there are many incredible resources and startups available to help pair you with the right person.

Once you have a therapist, and if you're comfortable doing so, mention it in passing. Insert it into conversations with the people you work with, for example, ’I’m leaving early today as I have a therapist appointment’; ‘I was just talking to my therapist about this’. But be sure to keep it light! You don't want to make other people uncomfortable.

Once I started bringing it up, people all over the company began reaching out to me: asking how I found my therapist, asking what our insurance covers, and looking for advice on how they can find their own. I like to take partial credit for at least three people in my org finding a therapist!

The healthier your employees are, the fuller their lives can be, and the more impactful they can be in your organization. And there is plenty of research to back that up!

If your company does not have adequate coverage for mental health services, work with your benefits and people team to see if that can be improved.

Defer to the professionals

Lastly, many great organizations offer speaking engagements where a professional can come and speak to your team about everyday mental health struggles, and provide them with tools and resources to help. Some are even tailored around times of the year that are especially hard for people, like the holiday season. See if you can find someone to speak, and remember that this is an excellent place for you to plug the details of your organization's mental health benefits!

It all boils down to being human. Show your team that you are human, and that they are also allowed to be. They'll take the rest they need, and be able to bring their best selves to their team; benefiting themselves, your organization, and your customers.