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5 Ways Managers Can Talk About Mental Health at Work Without Overstepping

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Companies have made major investments in supporting employee mental health during the pandemic, but stress and anxiety remain high.

One key to addressing work burnout could be teaching managers how to talk to their employees about mental health, says Deborah Grayson Riegel, an author, speaker and management expert who has taught at Wharton and Columbia Business School.

But managers often worry that bringing up mental health at work could cross personal boundaries, Riegel tells CNBC Make It.

When she asks managers about their hesitations, "they'll say things like: There's a stigma attached to it, or I don't want to pry, or I don't want to delve into something that they're not comfortable talking about. Then, what if they bring up something that I'm not prepared to handle?"

So, as a means of helping people find the right language for hard conversations, here are five tips for managers to lead a discussion about mental health without feeling like they're overstepping.

1. Acknowledge the discussion might be awkward

Everyone's comfort level and experience discussing their own mental health varies.

Managers can break the ice by acknowledging the topic can be thorny. Riegel suggests starting the conversation with something like, "I want to talk to you about something that may feel a little awkward, but I'm going to embrace the awkward because I care about you."

Consider framing the conversation by using a scale that feels more neutral. For example: On a scale of 1 to 10, where a 1 means you're completely burned out and 10 means you're ready to double your workload, where is your energy level today? Another frame of reference: What's your weather pattern today? Is it stormy, clear, or cloudy with peeks of sunlight?

You could also set the tone by sharing your responses first, which can create a sense of trust and psychological safety. Speaking up about your struggles may never feel entirely effortless, but by modeling it yourself, your employees can feel more comfortable sharing their own experience.

2. Don't single anyone out

Let your reports know ahead of time that you plan to check in with them about how they're doing, and assure them you're having this conversation with everyone on the team, Riegel says. That way they don't feel singled out for performance issues, and they get a better sense that this is a bigger group effort.

Make it clear that these check-ins aren't to go over to-dos and status updates, but that you're open to hearing about what's causing them anxiety, stress and other challenges at work or even at home.

You could also set aside time in your regular one-on-ones to ask people directly how they're doing aside from their work tasks, Riegel suggests. Kick things off by saying, "Let's put work aside for a second. How are you outside of work?"

3. Let them know they don't have to share

Discussing mental health at work will take some practice. Riegel recommends checking in routinely: "We tend to reach out only once because we don't want to overstep, and it feels awkward, but please don't reach out only once. How I feel today may be different from how I felt yesterday."

With that said, let your employee know they don't have to disclose anything they feel uncomfortable sharing.

Frame it this way, Riegel suggests: "I invite you to share because I care about you. You absolutely don't have to answer. I don't want to pry. But please know that I'm happy to talk about anything you want to talk about."

It's crucial to come to these conversations through the lens of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, she adds. "There are significant cultural differences as to how people think about asking for help," Riegel says, particularly employees from underrepresented groups or who don't feel a sense of psychological safety in the workplace.

4. Know when to stop bringing it up

If you get the sense your employee simply does not want to discuss certain things with you, like if they consistently respond that everything is fine or move to change the topic, know when it's time to stop bringing it up.

You can be upfront about this too, Riegel says, and give the floor to them by saying: "I want you to know that I care about you and that you can bring anything to me whether it's work- or not work-related, but I also don't want to be pushy. Would you like me to stop asking?"

5. Recognize if you're not the best resource

Remember: Even if your employee isn't opening up to you about what's causing them stress, it doesn't mean that they don't have support at home or elsewhere at work.

To check in, you might say something like: "It seems like you've been feeling a little stressed these days. Who do you have at work or in life to talk to about these things?"

As Riegel puts it, "managers need to keep in mind that it is important for your employees to have somebody to talk to, but it doesn't have to be you. If the answer is not you, rather than take it personally, be happy that they've got a resource."

Similarly, just because you're in a position of leadership doesn't mean you're expected to have all the solutions. It does, however, mean you have to know where to find the answers and steer your employees in the right direction, Riegel says.

To that end, get to know what resources you have available through your company, such as employee resource groups or a health benefits portal for new pandemic-related programs. If you know of broader resources in your community that can help, you can pass along those contacts as well.

Check out:

Companies prioritized mental health during Covid, so why are we still so burned out?

'I'm putting my entire life on hold': How workers are grappling with Covid burnout

4.8 million working parents have 'preventable' burnout—here are 5 things that can ease the stress

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