What Managers are Afraid to Ask Their Employees About Mental Health

Leading training sessions for new and seasoned managers has become a major part of our education practice, Shift People.

We’ve learned that most managers aren’t sure how to inquire about the personal details of their employees, even if a personal matter is impacting the employee’s work. Additionally, almost all managers are squeamish about the topic of mental health in general.

Modern managers know the importance of promoting mental wellness on their teams and in their companies. While executing that is easier said than done (hence why we created Shift People), simply asking, “How are you really doing?” to an employee that might be struggling can make a world of difference.

Initiating a conversation that way is so simple that you’d think it would be common practice? Not so.

In truth, managers remain quiet and put off having this conversation because of three key reasons:

1. Fear of what the employee might say

As humans, we love to try to predict the future, including imaging what someone might say in a specific upcoming interaction. In reality, a manager can only control their actions and not the responses of anyone else. There is a fear that if an invitation to discuss personal matters, like mental health, is opened that it will lead to an opening of Pandora’s box, adding complexity to their employee-manager relationship that neither is ready for.

A good rule of thumb: Remember that it’s a managers’ role to support an employee and guide them towards research, and that means creating space to actively listen. It not does mean that a employee’s mental health is the responsibility of a manager.

2. Fear of how to respond

Similarly, we are enormously fearful of being in sensitive situations where we don’t know what to do. What if the employee shares trauma or self-harm thoughts, a manager might wonder. Or what if a manager’s response is upsetting for an employee.

A good rule of thumb: Slow down. Responding as if the employee is a good friend and as a fellow human is much better than not saying anything at all.

3. Unclear roles and boundaries

There is no one set of boundaries in any relationship or in any workplace culture. It is important that a manager be aware of their own boundaries prior to beginning any dialogue, especially around what they may share with employees about their own mental health or around what their role is should an employee open up to them.

A good rule of thumb: Consider yourself an advocate rather than a therapist. Ensure that it’s clear that you can support the employee but that you aren’t the provider of care, a confidante, or their sole resource. Empower the employee to take action for themselves and encourage them to seek out external support.

A last thought

All of these barriers stem from our own nervousness around how to talk about our own mental health. Chances are that if we are shy to share our own challenges with the people closest to us, whether past or present, we are very unlikely to authentically engage in this conversation.

This isn’t because having this conversation necessitates that we share our own struggles with an employee. Rather, it’s because our underlying beliefs have shaped us to think that if we don’t have a solid handle on our own mental health, who are we to ask about someone else’s?

On the flip side, who are we not to?

Jordan is a Co-Founder of Shift and leads our education practice, Shift People.