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Supporting Mental Health in the Workplace

When I started out in the workplace, the philosophy was to leave your personal problems at the door. Thankfully, things have shifted over the years and there is much more empathy and acceptance for an employee as a whole person, not just who they are at work. The fact is that we bring our whole selves to work and, since we spend the majority of our time at work, it’s important that overall well-being is supported in the workplace.

The fact is that the pandemic and the state of our world have had a sudden and dramatic impact on mental health. According to the American Psychological Association, the U.S. is facing a mental health crisis. So, what can leaders and HR professionals do to support the mental health of employees? I believe that the #1 thing is to create an environment of caring and support.

Roles in Supporting Mental Health

Human Resources

Many people seem to think that Human Resources should have the primary role in dealing with employee mental health issues. They certainly do have a role but, in my mind, not the primary role. HR Professionals can help support employee mental health at more of a macro level through benefits and engagement/well-being programs and initiatives. Some best practices for mental health-related well-being programs include:

  • In-services on mindfulness, self-care, stress management, etc.

  • Life/wellbeing coaching

  • On-site yoga or meditation

  • Tips and newsletters with information on mental health

  • Employee Assistance Programs or access to mental health counseling

  • Programs/initiatives to support work/life integration such as time off, flexibility, childcare, elder care support, etc.

  • If you need some resources to help, ask about our Wellbeing in a Box solution.

In addition, HR Professionals can provide a sounding board for employees who are struggling and help to point them to resources and support.


Managers can impact overall well-being by showing they care about employees inside and outside of work. This can start with something as simple as learning the names of employees’ family members, discovering what they are passionate about, and checking in to see how they are. Incorporate questions like, “How are you doing personally?” or “How are you finding work lately?” into some of your interactions and genuinely care about the answer.

If you are a manager and see that employees appear to be struggling with stress, burnout, and mental health issues, consider initiating a caring conversation using the ALERT Framework.

ALERT Framework

A – Approach

The first step is to approach the individual to start a conversation. Clues that you might want to approach someone include:

  • A significant change in behavior

  • The individual seems anxious, tense, irritable, angry, depressed, etc.

  • Disengagement or neglect of work

  • Decline in caring for appearance or hygiene

  • Unusual behavior for the individual

  • Crying or sadness

  • Swings in mood

  • Social withdrawal

L - Listen nonjudgmentally

We all know that listening is an important interpersonal and leadership skill but most of us don’t do it that well. Here are some tips for listening well without judgment.

  • Give the person your undivided attention.

  • Set aside judgment about them or their situation and focus on just listening.

  • Make eye contact, nod, smile, paraphrase what you have heard them say periodically.

  • Ask open-ended questions but don’t push.

  • If they hesitate to open up, let them know you are available when/if they would like to talk.

E – Extend Empathy and Reassurance

Although it certainly isn’t a manager’s place to provide therapy or counseling, you can learn to apply relational skills to help others. The most important of these is empathy. So, what is empathy? It is not about offering sympathy but rather about being committed to fully understanding someone’s experience. It requires:

  • The ability to seek to understand the other person’s perspective without judgment.

  • An acknowledgment of the employee’s distress, validation of their feelings, and an expression of your understanding of their situation.

Example - “I can only imagine how difficult it must be to balance your work here with care responsibilities for your mother. That must be incredibly stressful.”

R - Refer to help if appropriate and necessary

Oftentimes, an employee may just need a listening ear. If appropriate and necessary, you might offer to help the person learn more about resources and services or refer them to your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP). You might also consider referring them to the Human Resources department which may have more expertise related to resources and benefits available.

T - Talk with them about self-help and other support strategies

  • Encourage and coach the employee to use self-help strategies.

  • Help them identify other support including supportive people in their network, programs in the community, and activities they enjoy.

  • If appropriate and available, offer to help them by providing flexibility, workload relief, time off, etc.

How to learn more

Want to learn more and increase your comfort in dealing with these situations and promoting employee well-being? Attend my upcoming workshop on 11/30/23!

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