Understanding the Mental Health of Your Team

If an employee or colleague spoke to you about not being able to come in to the office due to physical health illness, your go-to response would likely be to show complete understanding and compassion.

I’ve had the pleasure of working for managers who have gone above and beyond to make ensure their staff recover fully by effectively covering their workload and by sending supportive messages. Depending on your workplace culture and trustworthiness of your employees, the alternative response might be to suspect the illness is a complete ruse. They are generally the only two options we turn to. Complete understanding or complete suspicion.

When the issue concerns mental health, which is the likely response? Understanding or suspicion? I suspect neither.

If there was understanding, more than 20% of us would feel we could share that we’re feeling overly stressed at work with our managers. Nor is there real suspicion. Overt stress is undeniable. We know people face real battles with depression. There’s little suspicion that the whole thing is a lie. Yet, because we often don’t understand, the full compassion that would be received by a colleague who’d been in an accident is in danger of being missing when it comes to mental health. Instead, often verbally, the more likely response is to question whether the illness really prevents the person from doing their job. Not completely suspicious, nor completely understanding.

“The care package we’re offering could stop short of including any actual help.”


When it comes to mental health, ignorance will leaves us somewhere in the middle. There might be acknowledgement of a real issue that needs care, but the care package we’re offering could stop short of including any actual help. Here are some phrases that might indicate a response is in this dangerous middle ground:

  • Sure, the job’s stressful, but can you just push through?”
  • “Have you tried just getting out of bed and seeing how you go?”
  • “Get a good night’s sleep and you’ll be fine tomorrow.”

All of these responses could be from well-meaning managers. But they all communicate “I care, but don’t really understand.” The only way to choose the ‘complete understanding’ response is to make intentional steps to complete our understanding.

A More Complete Understanding

Here are three ways to understand better:

  1. Ask

    Part of the stigma around mental health is rooted in a fear of asking. However, ‘caring but not understanding’ responses can be easily avoided by careful asking. For example, just by asking “Are you sleeping well?” might let us know that anxiety has only allowed our employee five hours sleep over the last three nights. Suddenly a “sleep it off” response that previously sounded caring, now sounds more like asking someone to walk off a broken leg. “Get some sleep? …If only!”

  2. Be open to conversation

    Conversations about mental health only take place if the sufferer feels able to share. Studies have shown that less than half of those medically diagnosed with a genuine mental illness tell their manager at all. Every manager has a responsibility to change that statistic. Beginning open communication on mental health is the start. Don’t just ask. Be willing to talk through how your employees are really coping. “How are you?” is a powerful question if you’re genuinely open to the conversation that follows.

  3. Change something

    Help balance the mental imbalance by striving to change something for your employee. Talking goes a long way, but words without action exacerbate the issue. The most effective changes are often simple and come at no cost. Flexible break times, a change of workspace, allowing opportunities to work from home, or extra support in managing workload can make significant strides towards creating a healthier culture of mental wellbeing.

A friend of mine who has suffered with mental illness recently told me a helpful question a former manager asked her. It combined all of the above steps into one. Her manager asked “What are we currently not doing to support you?” It’s a great question. It might initially be met with “I don’t know…” or “I’ll get back to you.” But it opens up a conversation that, in time, could give you clear steps to making a change that shows complete understanding.