Dr. Riba Shares How Managers Can Support Employee Mental Health During and After the Pandemic

manager talking with employee on video call


Dr. Riba

The COVID-19 pandemic required organizations to change the way they operate in a short period of time. These stressful times increased challenges in the workplace including lack of knowledge around, and support for, employee mental health. The pandemic may be an opportunity for leadership to address the workplace mental health crisis through manager training, open communication, and adjusted schedules.

Michelle B. Riba, associate director at the University of Michigan Depression Center and professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Michigan, explains the importance of educating leadership on employee mental health and offers effective strategies to implement during and after the pandemic.

What is manager mental health training?

Manager mental health training focuses on the relationship between managers and their direct reports by teaching managers to better understand and support mental health needs in the workplace. Trainings have shown to improve:

• Mental health awareness and knowledge.
• Attitudes and stigma around mental health in the workplace.
• Confidence in addressing mental health issues.
• The sharing of mental health resources with employees.
• Return on investment.

Why is it important for managers to understand and support mental health?

“Managers are on the front lines for detecting problems early on,” explained Riba. “They are key to an organization’s health and helping employees understand the mental health resources available.”

Managers are also in a unique position to carry out the organization’s larger mental health strategy through their close business relationship with direct reports. This relationship helps managers maintain positive workplace culture and values. Plus, when managers are trained to recognize, address, and support employee mental health, they can improve an organization’s bottom line.

How can managers support employee mental health during remote operations?

Recognize signs an employee may be struggling with a mental health condition or other problem
The quick organizational response to the pandemic has impacted the manager-employee relationship. Entirely remote operations are making it difficult for managers to recognize signs of mental health conditions among their direct reports. Possible signs of mental health conditions in employees include:

• Changes in appearance and self-care.
• Dragging around work, moving slowly.
• Quick to anger.
• Emotional outbursts.
• Frequently late or often missing work.
• Negative statements like “it doesn’t matter” said very often.
• Poor performance at work.

“Substance use disorder is difficult to detect,” added Riba. “We know more people are using substances to cope with the pandemic and isolation. Managers should be having conversations about this general topic through Zoom calls with help from a health professional.”

Riba also suggested leadership review insurance claims data to get a better idea on certain medication employees as a group may be using, such as suboxone.

“It would be healthy for an organization to see what medications their employees, in general, are using so they have a better idea on the types of resources and support that might be useful,” said Riba.

Check in regularly
Talking with employees on a consistent basis is an effective way to monitor how they are handling emotions and stress brought on by the pandemic.

“Managers should make a point to connect on a personal level,” advised Riba. “Managers are often afraid to ask questions for fear of coming off as intrusive, but there are ways to ask personal questions to show that you care. Helping to review ways to begin the conversation are what we review in manager training seminars and programs.”

Ask how their family is doing, how school is going for the kids, how they are planning to celebrate the holidays this year are some ways to begin the conversation.

“Asking how everyone is doing should be built into the agenda of each meeting,” said Riba. “Especially as we approach the holidays.”

Adjust schedules to allow time for self-care
Many employees no longer have time to themselves while commuting to and from work each day. Whether we enjoy driving or not, the commute is critical for decompressing and giving the brain a chance to switch from work mode to home or parent mode. During today’s circumstances, all modes are on all the time, and it’s exhausting.

During the day, employees are jumping from one virtual call to another without any breaks in between.

“We need to give people time in the work week to take care of themselves,” said Riba. “This can be tricky, but managers should try to modify the schedule to give people time during the day to go for a walk and practice self-care.”

Acknowledge and address stigma
Stigma around mental illness can be a barrier to treatment for many employees. No one wants to, or should be, labeled as “crazy” or unfit to handle their job. In reality, mental illness can be caused by several different factors including biological, genetic, childhood trauma, environmental injustice, school or work-related stress, etc. and should be treated appropriately. Managers should be aware of stigma and correct any false information they hear among coworkers. This support can empower employees who are struggling with a mental health condition to seek the help they need.

How can managers support employee mental health while transitioning back into the workplace and beyond?

Transitioning back into the work environment is going to be a major source of anxiety for many employees. To help them maintain positive mental health and well-being during the transition, Riba advises leadership start gathering data on how employees are feeling now.

“Develop anonymous surveys to ask employees what concerns them about returning to the workplace and start addressing those concerns now,” said Riba. “Gathering data will be very important to support employees through the process.”

Arrange counseling opportunities
Every employee has specific issues happening in their life. Some are scared to transition back into society, others are sad to begin spending less time with family again.

“Some really enjoyed working from home and having their family around,” said Riba. “Going back to the company’s office is going to feel like a big loss for them.”

When the time comes, leadership should arrange counseling opportunities to help their employees through the process. These opportunities can include peer-to-peer talks, group counseling, or professional services and should extend far beyond the transition date.

How can leadership authentically support employee mental health?

Often, employees feel certain initiatives pushed by leadership are more of a formality rather than a genuine matter. When implementing a company-wide mental health initiative, leadership should message with sincerity about the importance of the issue.

“Encourage managers who have had their own mental health or substance use experiences to speak,” said Riba. Another option is to use videos already produced by public figures that discuss their mental health journey.

This would be a powerful way to show employees this is a top priority.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the way managers and direct-reports interact, but it shouldn’t deter leadership support for employee mental health and well-being. However, businesses should know they aren’t alone.

“This is very difficult for organizations, and they shouldn’t feel like they need to be experts,” said Riba. “We are one community, and these are unusual times. We should feel comfortable asking for help, whether on an individual or organizational level.”