When an Employee Discloses a Mental Health Condition: How to Respond

Read our steps for how to help employees who seek mental health support.

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Dos and don’ts of responding to employee mental health disclosures

Until you start your own small business, there are all kinds of hats to wear that you not only didn’t ever see yourself donning, but that perhaps you didn’t even think really existed in relation to business until you dove in.

For many in the small business world who find themselves tackling human resources practices for the first time in their lives, figuring out how to handle the mental health needs of your employees can be a doozy — especially since COVID-19 has made stress climb.

It can certainly throw you for a loop when an employee comes to you to disclose a mental health condition for the first time. Often that feeling of complete preparedness never arrives because each business, worker, and mental health need is different.

However, there are some things you can do to prepare for responding to the mental health disclosures of your employees. If you keep some of these dos and don’ts in mind, chances are you’ll have the basics you need to be set up for success — not only in navigating the situation for yourself but ensuring that things go smoothly for your employees, too.

Create a culture that is supportive of employees with mental health needs

Of course, the healthcare benefits that you offer your employees says a lot about how seriously you take the mental wellness of your workers, and whether or not you view mental health as just as important as physical health at your business.

That said, not all small businesses have the resources to offer sweeping healthcare benefits. In the United States, many people consider covering preventative mental health, such as therapy, as more along the lines of bonus coverage rather than standard coverage.

If you don’t have the ability to offer mental health support in the form of healthcare, create and implement clear messaging about fostering a company culture that’s supportive of mental health.

Directly saying — and continually reminding — your company that you see mental health as just as important and necessary as physical health can make a significant impact. It helps if management and other company leaders reinforce the same messaging.

consider offering things like mental health days or flex time off that those with mental health conditions can use as they need.

Then, consider offering things like mental health days or flex time off that those with mental health conditions can use as they need. Because many people still struggle with talking about their mental health, resources like this that people can use without having to disclose their condition at work can go a long way, both in terms of mental health but the stress that surrounds it, too.

Keep compassion and empathy front and center

When someone is experiencing a mental health issue or distress, some of the hardest things to do are talk about it and admit it. Many people struggle doing this with their closest friends and family members, much less those who construct their professional worlds.

One of the next hardest things is to ask for help, so if your employee is coming to you to do those things, one of the best things you can do right off the bat is to keep in mind how hard all of this is for that person.

A mistake that managers or owners make is treating this conversation as an overly formal one. Naturally, everything work related needs to always remain professional, but it’s possible to be both professional and informal. It’s important that managers and other leaders — who might be the ones that workers disclose a mental health condition to — respond in a way that makes the employee feel comfortable, accepted, and that their job isn’t in jeopardy.

It helps to have resources at the ready, both internal and external

From clearly outlining any of the mental health benefits that your company offers, to culling a list of local resources, there are ways to help not only you prepare for a conversation that might come up, but to help your employee find the support they need, too.

If putting a list together on your own feels daunting, consider getting one from a local mental healthcare provider or nonprofit organization that specializes in mental health.

This also helps with a central element of responding to an employee’s disclosure of a mental health crisis: focus on what they can do rather than what they can’t. This approach also helps to …

Develop an individual action plan for managing it

The whole idea here is to be solution-oriented as you develop a way to give your employee the support they need to continue performing their role, while also managing their mental health needs.

Be solution-oriented as you develop a way to give your employee the support they need to continue performing their role, while also managing their mental health needs.

As you construct this, it’s important to avoid creating extra work that other employees aren’t expected to do. Every plan will look different for every person, but try to avoid things like asking for extra details or additional reports that amount to added work or stress.

Communication is key here, not only in creating the plan but in terms of what you bake into the plan as well. Not everything you come up with on the first try will be the best way to approach your employee’s mental health needs over time — things change and people change.

So consider building clear and consistent channels of communication and check-in points into your action plan. This way you can both see if the plan works as intended and if it works over time. With built in check ins, you can connect on what’s working and what isn’t and adjust accordingly. You can repeat this process as often as necessary until you find something that works.

But the communication never quits. While you might be able to reduce the frequency of check ins at some point, you’ll always want to keep communication flowing in case anything ever changes.

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