The Decline Of The State Of Mental Health In The Workplace (The Pandemic Is Making It Worse) — What Managers Need To Know And Do

Image from Occupational Health & Safety

If you’ve surmised that there seems to be more anxiety, more tension, maybe even more anger in the workplace these days, emerging research data suggests you are correct. It’s not just a hunch.

Let’s face it, things are a mess these days for many organizations and for the people who work in them. Covid-19 and this seemingly never-ending pandemic have brought serious disruption to many facets of organizations and to the workplace itself. For instance:

  • Masking and vaccination rules (and resulting disputes) within the workplace;
  • Work From Home (WHF) vs. Work From Office policies and practices;
  • Difficulties in employee hiring and retention;
  • Concerns from employees about career options and opportunities;
  • Supply chain interruptions;
  • Inconsistent and regularly changing messaging from medical experts and political leaders that impact policies and decision-making in businesses.

All of this volatility, this uncertainty, this lockdown fatigue, this talk of “new normals” — it’s all had an adverse effect on the overall mental health and mental well-being in the workplace, according to a number of credible sources as well as peoples’ everyday observations.

“Mental health.” It’s a topic that is often misunderstood or trivialized (“You’re so OCD;” “Don’t be so paranoid”), but perhaps more importantly, it’s a topic and an issue that is often avoided, especially in the workplace. Although the CDC estimates that in 2019 — a “calm” year prior to the pandemic — more than 19% of U.S. adults received some sort of mental health treatment and almost 10% received counseling or therapy from a mental health professional, it’s still a something of a stigma and often causes discomfort to even discuss it in the workplace.

People at work can — and do — tell you all about the treatment they are getting for their back pain or for their cholesterol problem. And usually, they tell you more than you care to know. But when was the last time a co-worker talked openly about how they are being treated for depression or how they are trying to address their anxiety disorder or substance abuse? I was in the work world for 45 years in different industries and in different jobs — management and non-management — and I can count on one hand the number of associates who even shared that they were in therapy.

Avoidance of the topic also occurs because of an understandable lack of understanding about what constitutes poor mental health and how one might “know it when you see it.” Who among us has not had workdays when we were anxious; frustrated; stressed; moody; angry; disengaged; highly emotional about something? It’s part of the human condition.

“Joe’s” Story

It’s when those emotions or behaviors become chronic or regularly occurring that it becomes more than simply Joe having a bad day. It might be a diagnosable mental health issue.

But that’s where it gets tricky. Without clinical training, it can be hard to tell where the tipping point is between Joe often having lots of bad days and Joe having an underlying condition that should be addressed with counseling or medication or both. Or addressed with mental wellness activities such as mindfulness or meditation or more physical exercise.

Perhaps Joe’s work unit is hugely understaffed and he has an impossible workload and is feeling overwhelmed and fears losing his job, causing him sleepless nights and family friction. Or perhaps Joe is having family problems or financial problems and it is showing up at work as distraction or failure to meet deadlines or withdrawal from interactions with colleagues. Or absenteeism.

All those things (and others) impact work performance and if Joe’s manager has a conversation with him about the performance issue Joe might or might not disclose what might be driving his behavior. Or Joe might also be unaware of an underlying cause-and-effect set of factors impacting his behaviors. Or he could be in denial that even he has a “problem” — he’s just going through a “rough patch.”

And Joe’s manager is probably not skilled enough to have a non-threatening conversation which ends with a suggestion that Joe might want to seek expert help from the company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or other mental health resources in his community. There’s risk in trying to navigate such a conversation and potentially making Joe’s inner turmoil even worse. A recent study by British research company Onepoll found that almost half of survey respondents believe that seeking therapy is a sign of weakness and Joe being a proud man would not want to appear weak.

Perhaps Joe’s manager might simply not want to deal with any of what she considers to be intrusive and messy and feels inadequate about having that sort of conversation. After all, she is a manager, not a counselor. Plus, she’s overworked herself and juggling multiple priorities and there are other meetings to attend and there is work to get out the door. The conversation might end with, “ Joe, you need to step up. I know you can do it!”

So, Joe’s situation does not get adequately addressed. And everyone loses.

There are lots of Joes out there. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) conducted an April 2021 workplace survey that had 1099 participants and found that more than 40 percent of respondents reported feeling hopeless, burned out, or exhausted at work as they tried to cope with a pandemic world.

That survey was administered in April. Since then, many employees have been called back to work, and conflict and anxiety appear to be rising as a result of mask and vaccine issues. A September 13 CNBC article describes the rising level of tensions and hostility as the “vaxxed” and the “unvaxxed” are having to co-mingle in the workplace. Both groups report being aggrieved by the other and sometimes from the organizations for which they work.

And several experts said it will get worse before it gets better.

This Predates the Pandemic…

Of course, workplace angst, tension, and conflict are not new issues. Since the beginnings of the industrial revolution, there have been many dreadful, dangerous and depressing workplaces, just as there have been other workplaces that have been uplifting, rewarding, and fulfilling.

Work has been called “the real four-letter word” partly because of inept or jerk bosses. There are a bunch out there but there are also lots of good ones. But it’s not all about the boss — let’s acknowledge that some of what can make work a not-so-happy place is also caused by thoughtless or mean-spirited co-workers/colleagues. Managers don’t have a monopoly on bullying, harassment and abuse.

And sometimes dissatisfaction and disengagement are caused by the nature of the work itself — bad systems and processes; mindless tasks; angry customers (think today’s flight attendants); a toxic work culture; deplorable and/or unsafe working conditions.

So, while conditions at work, the spillover of home life tensions into the work world, and the human condition itself have always contributed to some negative mental health in the workplace (anxiety, fear, frustration) it’s not unreasonable to conclude — as the data suggests — that the pandemic has made things worse.

The Manager’s Already Full Plate

Who, then, is expected to productively manage all these difficult human emotions and also ensure that the work gets done, create/maintain a positive work culture and help others stay focused on the success of the organization in light of all the pandemic-related distractions?

Hmm… I guess that would be the already stretched managers and supervisors. The ones — like Joe’s leader — who likely have never been trained to identify possible mental health issues in their teams or with colleagues. The ones — managers and supervisors — who are under constant pressure to successfully navigate competing demands and priorities by their managers.

And the same group of people who themselves might be experiencing similar challenges to their own mental well-being.

In a June 8 article I suggested that because of the pandemic and its resulting maelstrom, it’s never been more demanding to be a manager or a boss than now. The workplace mental health issue represents yet another object on the managerial radar screen that needs purposeful attention.

Unfortunately, remote work and WFH have made it more difficult to observe team members or colleagues who might be struggling with mental health issues. In Zoom or Team meetings, associates are “on stage” and usually project an image of being at least involved in the meeting. Everything seems to be okay personally when on stage because others are watching. No long periods of dropping out or lack of eye contact. No obvious signs of high anxiety or distress.

Once the meeting ends, however, everyone reverts to their “back-stage” self. They are not likely to be with other work folks and a manager or colleague will miss many clues or observations of a troubled team member or colleague. Daily in-person interactions in the workplace provide those additional data points: the nonverbals; the subtle avoidant behaviors; the choice of words in a casual 1–1 chat in the hallway or in the cubicle; highly emotional reactions to “trigger” words. So much can go undetected. So much can go unaddressed. Again, it makes the manager’s job harder to be aware of a team member who might need help.

In the above brief storyline about Joe, his boss sees herself as a manager, not a counselor, and that is absolutely appropriate. It’s difficult enough for many managers to effectively coach others. Counseling is much more difficult and more nuanced than coaching and requires a great deal of skills training to be done effectively. Good intentions are not enough.

Manager Actions to Take and to Avoid

So, what’s a manager to do?

  • DON’T try to “fix” anybody except self.
  • DO be aware of mental health as a workplace issue and be knowledgeable of resources the organization has to address mental health issues, such as the company’s EAP or community resources.
  • DON’T take on the role of armchair psychologist — leave the diagnostics to the trained professionals.
  • DO talk to one’s own next level up manager about company or community resources and who in HR might also be a resource for initial conversations about an employee’s mental health. My experience is that few HR professionals have expertise in mental health counseling but they can usually add value by being a referral agent and by being aware that an employee might be in distress. There might be other data points in someone’s personnel file that help HR determine if a situation needs to be elevated within HR.
  • DON’T overreact to some tension and anxiety among team members or colleagues. These are difficult times and we are not dispassionate robots. Plus, people can legitimately see things differently and have different personalities and areas of expertise. Disagreement can be healthy to get to a better solution for issues. Lead by example for Rules of Engagement.
  • DO put the topic of mental health (or similar) on the agenda for an upcoming team meeting of your colleagues and your manager to help raise awareness for a broader audience of leaders. It’s no different from discussing hazardous material protocols or disaster planning.
  • DO demonstrate Emotional Intelligence behaviors, especially empathy. It will serve you and others well. People are notorious boss-watchers and most leaders I’ve met underestimate how much their direct reports observe them — what they do and what they say. Again, lead by example.
  • DO create a work environment that is fair, supportive, empowering, and respectful to the degree you can make it so. None of those things requires any budget and almost all managers have some level of influence over the work climate in their team or work unit. A psychologically healthy climate in a work unit helps prevent the workplace from being the source of stress and anxiety for vulnerable associates.
  • DO take care of your own physical and psychological self as a manager. There’s a reason for the message we’ve all heard on airplanes: “Should the cabin lose pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the overhead area. Please place the mask over your own mouth and nose before assisting others.” The point is, of course, that we can’t help others if we are in a compromised state ourselves.
  • DON’T hesitate to ask your HR or training department about whether there is appropriate training or technology that might be helpful in this area. Many organizations offer CPR training to support physiological health. Similarly, there many training or awareness programs and phone apps out there for mental health, such as the Mental Health First Aid course that is conducted by certified instructors and which over a million people in the U.S have attended.
  • DO circulate this article and/or others like it to your leader and/or HR to contribute to the conversation and awareness building. And possibly to actions.

Managers are the stewards of the assets in an organization including the human assets. Especially in this period of pandemic pandemonium workplace mental health/mental well-being is an issue for which strong stewardship is needed.

About the author: Mike Hoban is a business topics writer and leadership coach/ advisor. He is actively working at becoming a world-class grandpa to his five young granddaughters. In addition to his 35+ years experience as a leader, consultant, and business owner he has also published extensively in Fast Company and wrote a business column for 12 years. His recent commentaries — including many about leading during the COVID crisis — can be found on his LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mike-hoban-b5756b6/He can also be reached at mjhoban99@gmail.com.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

Mike Hoban is a West Michigan-based leadership coach and advisor who also writes about business topics.