Most employees struggle with mental health concerns. And pretending otherwise is harmful to your business, and more importantly, to your employees.

More than 62.5 million individuals suffer from anxiety, depression, and post traumatic stress disorder. This puts influential people in important positions. Leaders can use their power and authority to make a positive impact on their coworkers and employees, or they can make things much, much worse.

To learn more about how bosses can positively or negatively influence the mental health challenges of their employees, I sat down with Alyssa Yeo, LCPC, who works at Urban Balance, a private counseling group practice in Chicago. She is a psychotherapist, and certified yoga instructor, with expertise in treating anxiety.

Alyssa shared, "I have several successful clients that are dealing with inappropriate comments made by their bosses. What these leaders fail to realize is that their words and their knowledge--or lack thereof--can significantly improve or worsen the outcome of their employees' struggles with mental health."

She continued, "When clients disclose their mental health concerns, they want to be supported. But all too often I hear stories of a boss not knowing how to discuss mental health issues, and sometimes making things much worse by making assumptions or offering unsolicited advice."

During our conversation, I was surprised at how in-tune Alyssa was with her clients. She decided to share with me 5 things that bosses shouldn't say or do to their employees struggling with mental health challenges based on her own experience working with these same issues.

1. You sure are taking a lot of sick days.

Don't shame your employees about their mental health challenges.

Alyssa told me that her clients have described bosses trying to joke with their employees about their ongoing issues, but the content of their messages are often interpreted hurtful--reinforcing the idea that the client is flawed.

"Making light of mental health concerns has much more to do with alleviating your own discomfort than making someone else feel better," Alyssa said.

2. Why are you always so anxious? Why do your hands always shake in meetings?

Alyssa explained, "Don't interrogate your employees. Asking too many questions is invasive and ultimately not helpful for either person." Putting people on the spot about their challenges, especially their visible ones, makes them feel self-conscious.

When someone is feeling uncomfortable on top of their typical challenges, it makes them less productive for their business and decreases their self-esteem.

3. You shouldn't feel sad--just rub some dirt in it and keep going.

Don't tell your employees how they should feel. "Telling people how to feel is never a good way to build a healthy relationship. What bosses often fail to realize is that telling someone how they should feel closes them off and makes them feel more isolated than before," Alyssa noted.

4. Maybe you should try some new meds.

"Stop giving advice about something you know nothing about. Don't tell people how to handle their own mental health concerns. People are the experts of their own experience, they don't need your flippant comments," Alyssa summarized.

Telling people what they should do is clearly not the most helpful way to make a positive impact.

5. Yes, I told your colleagues, but that isn't a big deal.

Alyssa also stated that bosses shouldn't tell their colleagues and peers about someone's mental health concerns. While some businesses might not be bound to the legal and ethical standards of confidentiality, as a therapist, Alyssa informed me that it is important for employers to value and protect this sensitive information.

"When bosses keep this information confidential, it builds trust," she said.

During our conversation, Alyssa conveyed three small things that some bosses did to help their employees struggling with mental health concerns:

1. Provide support.

Offer affirming statements without providing advice. "Something as simple as, 'That must be difficult. Thank you for trusting me enough to share that information,' can have a major positive impact," Alyssa said.

2. Provide resources.

If you have programs or support networks connected through your organization, make sure that your employee has access to them. You don't need to interrogate them about following up, but providing cost-effective resources and additional support can be helpful.

3. Advocate for them.

When you're aware that someone is struggling with mental health concerns, help them.

Alyssa indicated that it's important to "Think about how they might react. Put yourself in their shoes. Let them know they have your support and speak up if you see colleagues or other employees being insensitive toward them." 

We need to start taking our mental and emotional health seriously.

"These issues are important. I hope that we can all continue learning more about ourselves and others so that we can make a positive impact on the world," Alyssa said with a smile.

Published on: Nov 7, 2017