Improving Employees’ Mental Health: What Can Managers Do?

Laurent M. Lapierre, PhD and Silvia Bonaccio, PhD

Every year, one in five Canadians, or roughly 7.1 million people, experiences a mental health problem according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada. By age 40, one in two Canadians will have experienced a mental health problem. Morneau-Shepell, the largest Employee and Family Assistance Program provider in Canada, further estimates that 41% of Canadians are at high risk for mental health problems, with some of the most common mental illnesses being depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

The impact on workplaces is substantial. For example, the Mental Health Commission of Canada estimates that in any given week, 500,000 Canadians are unable to work due to a mental health challenge. Not surprisingly, the cost to our workplaces is significant and concerning — more than $6 billion annually can be attributable to declines in productivity and increases in absenteeism, presenteeism, and turnover. The cost to the Canadian economy more broadly is even greater, estimated at well over $50 billion each year.

Mental health is of growing concern across Canadian workplaces. Given the important role that managers play in their employees’ work experiences, they may wonder how they can help rather than hinder their employees’ mental health. Discussing mental health in the workplace and making mental health a priority for all Canadian workplaces is essential. Given the prevalence of mental health problems in society, most managers will supervise one or more employees with a mental health problem in their careers — whether they know it or not.

A Challenge for Managers

Most managers report openness and a willingness to support their employees’ mental health. At the same time, they also report lacking knowledge and feeling uncertain as to how they can support employees who are experiencing a mental health problem. Managers often feel ill-equipped to help a struggling employee, especially if the root cause of the struggle has little or nothing to do with workplace factors.

Discussing mental health in the workplace and making mental health a priority for all Canadian workplaces is essential.

Compounding the feelings of being unprepared for helping employees is the fact that mental health problems are often difficult to see. Whereas a manager might spring into action by delivering the Heimlich maneuver upon witnessing an employee with her hands around her throat gasping for air, this same manager may not recognize the signs of mental health challenges as readily. Indeed, it is easy to overlook many warning signs of mental health problems, such as increased lateness and absenteeism, performance problems (e.g., missing deadlines), withdrawing from coworkers, and even the mention that one is stressed out. Other signs, such as employees crying at their desk, expressing stronger emotional reactions than usual, or simply not seeming themselves, can also be misinterpreted. Mental health problems can be “invisible” to managers.

In our research, employees who have experienced mental health problems have shared with us that they often feel they must conceal their mental health problems at work. A common approach is sharing only vague cues, such as saying that they have not been feeling well. Yet, some amount of disclosure is often necessary for employees to ask for support or accommodations that would help in their time of need. Intervening with work adjustments early, and modifying adjustments as needed, can help reduce the impact of illnesses on employees and workplaces alike. Despite the potential positive outcomes of disclosure, many employees living with a mental health challenge are reluctant to disclose to people at work, including their manager. This reluctance is often attributable to the stigma of mental health problems.

Continued Stigmatization of Mental Health Problems

The Continued Stigmatization of Mental Health Problems

A stigmatized characteristic or condition is one that is associated with negative stereotypes (e.g., “anxious people are weak”), which lead to negative emotions, attitudes and discriminatory behaviours relative to people with that characteristic. As a result, individuals who are stigmatized possess a characteristic that others believe “devalues” them. Mental illness is stigmatized both in society in general, and in work contexts in particular, even in relatively more progressive countries like Canada. Indeed, in one of our ongoing investigations, several people have described having been ostracized and/or belittled after disclosing and seeking support for a mental health problem, which only exacerbated their struggle. A common barrier to disclosing mental health problems in the workplace is thus the fear of being stigmatized. Many people want to avoid being labelled by others as someone with a mental health problem and the real or perceived judgments that can coincide with that label.

Moreover, some people may incorporate or internalize others’ stigmatized views about mental health problems into their own identity (e.g., “I’m anxious so often, so I guess that means I’m a weak person”). This is what is meant by self-stigma. Internalizing the stigma brings about negative self-views, reduced self-esteem and feelings of shame. Such negative thoughts and feelings may prevent disclosure since few people are motivated to reveal to others the root of their negative self-views, especially in a work context.

How Can Managers Reduce Mental Health Stigmatization at Work?

Given the fact that managers are in formal positions of leadership, they have an opportunity to lead such that mental health problems are less stigmatized within their unit, and to clearly show that they are disposed to helping their employees maintain good mental health. Such leadership should encourage at least some employees to more openly talk about and seek support for a mental health challenge they may be living with.

There are several ways of providing such leadership to support employees’ mental health in the workplace. One promising approach is to present the good mental health of all team members as an inspiring common goal — and a priority — to achieve. To help inspire team members with the idea that mental health should be a team goal, managers could consider offering their staff training on mental health in the workplace. One effective training program offered through the Mental Health Commission of Canada is the Mental Health First Aid ( This training course, first developed in Australia, has been delivered in over 23 countries thus far. 300,000 Canadians have already been trained. This program educates participants on mental health problems and teaches participants how to provide effective support and assistance. Engaging in this training helps demystify mental health problems, thus weakening their stigmatization. Managers who engage their team members in training like the Mental Health First Aid course during regular work hours, and who join staff in the training sessions themselves, send a powerful message about unit priorities.

Such leadership should encourage at least some employees to more openly talk about and seek support for a mental health challenge they may be living with.

Managers can also show leadership by inviting all team members to brainstorm how the unit could implement healthier, more flexible work practices, while also ensuring that the unit can fulfill its work goals. In doing so, managers could include the discussion of mental health needs along with other support needs (e.g., childcare, eldercare). This approach would help find creative solutions for supporting the needs of all employees without inadvertently singling out individuals with mental health needs.

Managers can show leadership by inviting all team members to brainstorm how the unit could implement healthier, more flexible work practices, while also ensuring that the unit can fulfill its work goals

As a last example of how managers can provide leadership that would support mental health within the team, they can make sure that they take the time to discover the unique needs and concerns of each of their team members (to avoid perceptions of preferential treatment) in order to help them realize their full potential. Each team member must be viewed as more than just an employee who has a job to do. Indeed, most people have interests, dreams, fears and struggles that transcend their current job. Employees showing signs of mental health problems is an opportunity for the manager to show such individualized consideration. Making the effort to ask those employees how they are doing (especially when employees do not seem like themselves) and authentically showing interest in what they choose to share could give those employees the comfort to talk about their challenges and discuss possible supports.

Each team member must be viewed as more than just an employee who has a job to do.

Some Employees May Still be Reluctant to Disclose

Despite many efforts to create a work environment that supports the mental health of all employees, some employees may still be reluctant to disclose their personal mental health challenges. The decision to disclose one’s mental health problems, past or present, is a deeply personal one. Whether the reluctance to disclose in a work context is rooted in a fear of being stigmatized or because employees have not yet come to terms with a diagnosis, managers should avoid pressuring employees to disclose, whether implicitly or explicitly.

Even if they do not know or are not sure whether one or more of their employees are experiencing mental health problems, managers can still make decisions and behave in ways that would benefit their employees’ mental health. Indeed, evidence-based management suggests that many workplace initiatives that have positive effects on employee wellbeing also support employees who are experiencing mental health challenges. For example, giving employees a say in how they do their work, being fair and transparent in how important decisions are made, and recognizing strong performance contributions (even with just a heartfelt “thank you”) can go a long way to foster healthy workplace climates. Managing in such a way should help prevent the workplace from being a root cause of employees’ mental health difficulties and prevent the workplace from exacerbating an employee’s existing mental health problems.

Laurent M. Lapierre

Laurent M. Lapierre, PhD

Ian Telfer Professor of Workplace Behaviour and Health, Telfer School of Management, University of Ottawa

Laurent M. Lapierre is a professor at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management and currently holds the Ian Telfer Professorship in Workplace Behaviour and Health. His research mainly addresses occupational health psychology, with particular emphasis on the intersection of individuals’ work and family lives and, more recently, on how organizations can support rather than hinder employees’ mental health. He also researches leadership, especially employees’ contributions to, and perceptions of, their managers’ leadership.

Silvia Bonaccio

Silvia Bonaccio, PhD

Ian Telfer Professor of Workplace Psychology, Telfer School of Management, University of Ottawa

Silvia Bonaccio is the Ian Telfer Professor of Workplace Psychology at the Telfer School of Management, University of Ottawa. Her work focuses on the facilitators of positive work experiences for employees living with disabilities. She also researches the influence of anxiety and emotions in the employee assessment and selection process. Dr. Bonaccio is the founding director of the Telfer School of Management PhD program, she is a Past Chair of the Canadian Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, and she is an Associate Editor at Personnel Assessment and Decisions.

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