tags on every page of your site. -->
Oct 16, 2023
A manager's guide to supporting employees who are experiencing a mental health challenge

Quick Take

  • Significant changes in a worker’s mood or behavior may be a sign of an emotional issue.
  • Demonstrate concern for the worker, not the work.
  • Check with human resources for helpful benefits and resources to recommend.

Good mental health is fundamental for maintaining individual well-being and vitality. However, nearly 1 in 4 U.S. adults are struggling with a mental health disorder in any given year, with 2 in 5 working adults experiencing persistent stress or excessive anxiety on a daily basis. Additionally, only half of people with a mental health disorder receive treatment. Unaddressed emotional and mental health challenges can impact America's workforce, reducing productivity, increasing absenteeism and even lowering workforce morale.

“Traditionally, there has been apprehension around talking about mental health at work due to stigma,” said Sandra Shaklan, a licensed clinical social worker and innovation lead of Workplace Well-being Services at Cigna Healthcare. “Individuals were afraid that admitting to having even a minor mental health issue would make them appear weak or inferior to their colleagues.”

That perspective started to shift during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the public collectively acknowledged the importance of seeking help for stress, anxiety and other mental health issues, Shaklan added. The sentiment was echoed among the working population as well. Shaklan noted that 81% of workers report that having a workplace that supports employee mental health would be a key consideration when seeking a future employer. This means managers need to do their part to create and maintain an emotionally supportive work environment. “Managers and team leaders need to be able to recognize mental health issues among their staff, as well as feel comfortable approaching employees that are struggling and help them get connected to the support they need,” Shaklan said. This approach not only helps employees address issues more quickly, it can also have a positive impact on workplace culture by decreasing stigma around mental health, as well as improving manager-employee relationships. Strong manager relationships have been associated with workers who have high levels of vitality. Shaklan provides three steps for managers to provide support.

1. Recognize signs of an employee having a difficult time 

Shaklan noted that everyone can have a bad day from time to time, which does not necessarily signal a mental health issue. However, it is important for managers to be on the lookout for significant changes in a worker’s behavior or mood, such as increased difficulty in completing assignments, frequent absences from work, or a notable uptick in worry or sadness. 

2. Respond to concerns with care and respect  

If one of your team members is showing signs of a potential mental health issue, you should approach the person, in private, as soon as possible. In the discussion, Shaklan recommended sharing with employees the behaviors or changes that are causing you concern, and politely ask if there is anything you can do to help. “It’s important to let the employee take the lead on what they would like to share with you.” she said.

Shaklan emphasized the importance of expressing concern and support for the employee as you review your observations. “Sometimes employees see management as insensitive, focusing more on the work being done than the people doing it,” she noted. “When talking to team members, let the person know that you care about them, treat them with dignity and respect, and provide emotional support when needed.”

3. Refer to supportive resources

If the worker mentions a personal or emotional concern that is bothering them, share resources that may be available through your organization’s benefit plans, such as an employee assistance program (which typically offers initial counseling sessions at no cost) or behavioral health benefits. Check with your human resource team in advance of the conversation to find out what services and programs are available. Shaklan added that, even if the employee is reluctant to share personal information, the manager can always remind the person that these services are available for all employees if they should need them.

Sometimes the conversation can reach a point where you may be concerned about the person’s safety. In this case, you should suggest they get immediate support via the 988 Lifeline or by calling 911.

Where managers can go for help

Shaklan noted that identifying potential issues and starting conversations can be difficult. “While many people recognize the importance of mental health care, there is still a lingering stigma around it,” she said. She recommended a number of resources that can help managers with each of these steps, including management consultations offered by most employee assistance programs as well as mental health first aid courses offered in the local community.

Managers do not have to wait for emotional issues to present themselves when supporting their workers in improving their mental health. Shaklan advised team leaders to make sure all employees are aware of their company-provided mental health benefits and support programs, as well as how to access them. Setting an example is also a good way to encourage employees to care for their mental well-being. “When managers model good behaviors, taking steps to understand and address their own mental health needs, their teams will know that it’s okay to do the same.” Shaklan said.

behavioral health care

Wellness, mental health, and behavioral

Cigna's wellness programs and behavioral health services can help your employees thrive.

Learn more