Recent data compiled by mental health app Ginger shows that 96% of CEOs think they’re doing enough for employee’s mental health. Great right? The painful reality is that only 69% of employees agree—a 27% swing that indicates that the good intentions of our most senior leaders are not being put into practice. Something gets lost in the execution. I call this percentage swing the understanding gap. 

If it wasn’t already, COVID has put mental health in the workplace top of mind for HR. Even before the pandemic began, organizations started taking mental health more seriously. Lunch and learns were filled with tips on making stress a friend, not an enemy, and techniques for dealing with anxiety or preventing burnout. So how can we explain the disconnect between how we think we’re doing with mental health versus what our people actually feel?

In short, it’s because our interventions are too superficial, and we’re not thinking hard enough about prevention. 

Let me break that down a tad further. 

A policy change, a webinar, assigning an e-learning program, and a generic ‘how are you’ once a week are all very nice. Still, it only provides us as HR professionals with a brief moment of education or support. If we want employees to really feel that their mental health is a priority, then we have to change our behaviors, change our interactions, and change our cultures so that mental health is taken as seriously as physical health. COVID has permanently merged the lines between work and life. Therefore, how our workplace addresses mental health is mission-critical. 

A recent study by McKinsey highlighted that the most important driver of work satisfaction is interpersonal relationships, and of those, the relationship with management is most critical. 

Managers hold the key to improving the lives of their employees. Super! Now what? Managers are under more pressure than ever before due to restructures, profit warnings, promotions, and pivots left, right, and center. How can we get this critical group of people to champion a mental health first culture and close the understanding gap? And how can organizations become proactive and create a culture of prevention instead of intervention?

The fix: Moving the dial on mental health at work.

Here’s my quick take of five things managers and HR can do today to close the understanding gap and move the dial on mental health at work. 

1. Ask better, more genuine questions.

Start by using the time that already exists and tweaking it. Managers already have one-on-ones with employees. Use some of that time to ask about mental health. If we were to hurt ourselves while out running, it would be pretty standard for us to say, ‘I hurt my leg running this week,’ and for your manager to remember that and in the next interaction ask, ‘Oh… how’s your leg?’ What if instead, the conversation went like this; ‘It sounds like your leg pain is getting better, that’s great! And how’s your mental health this week? I know we have a lot going on.’  

2. Model vulnerability. 

Once conversations change to focus on the employee’s mental health, the next step is to get them to share more. To help with that, managers need to be more vulnerable. Vulnerability is one of the biggest superpowers a manager can call upon. It builds trust and brings teams closer. Share your experiences of mental health and, what’s better, the things that worked and haven’t worked for you. 

3. Take a beginner’s mind approach to mental health education. 

Get rid of deadlines or pre-determined outcomes. Learning with a beginner’s mind puts the joy back into learning. HR leaders need to give managers time to discover their own learning journeys. The more deadlines we place upon our learning offerings, the more it feels like a corporate must-do. HR can set up a mental health or wellness hub where great content exists, giving managers the time to explore. If managers are already asking employees better questions, this will lead to a greater curiosity to build capability. 

4. Stop getting straight to the task at hand. 

One of the big sacrifices in the new virtual world of work is walking to and from meeting rooms, chatting in the kitchen while preparing coffee, and the casual conversations that start before the meeting. What happens now is our team’s call starts at 9:00, we join at 8:59, we spend 15 seconds saying hi, then the person who arranged the call begins to talk about the agenda. 

When this happens back-to-back, multiple times a day, there is no release. We miss the genuine curiosity or conversation that helps us relax and lets the mind wander or be free. So, team fatigue builds (it’s a real thing), and stress builds because the task tap never turns off.  

Managers, make sure that your teams don’t have back-to-back meetings without a break. Dedicate five minutes at the start of every meeting to chat about something other than ‘the task.’ You can mix it up each week, so one week, your non-task chat is about family or pets, and the next week, you can chat about what everyone’s watching on Netflix.

5. Let’s get live data on mental health. 

We’re living in a time where it’s more accepted to ask a few probing questions to get better insights into how someone is truly feeling. Becoming more data-driven is now a necessity. By getting better data on our employee’s mental health, we can move to prevention rather than reaction. The following quote from Mentor Thinks sums this up quite nicely:

“Imagine a bucket full of health. This bucket has a hole in the bottom, and the health is dripping out (disease). We can mop up the floor below every hour, maybe even squeeze some of the health back into the bucket from the mop. But eventually, the health will be lost because we are not addressing the root of the problem. Instead, we can look for ways to prevent the hole and stop the leak from occurring” – Mentor Thinks. 

How can you get this data? Start by sending out a survey and asking teams three simple questions, using a basic scale of “not at all” to “often.”

  • I feel run down and drained of physical or emotional energy. 
  • I have not been sleeping well this week. 
  • Things are piling up, and it’s causing me to feel more stress than usual. 

A weekly pulse of these questions will give you the insights you need to design targeted interventions and nip burnout in the bud. 

Caring for mental health, every day of the year

I recently heard an excellent comment about the mind. What’s more important, your teeth or your brain? Of course, you’ll say your brain. But how often are we told to work on it? We brush our teeth twice a day. and stay away from sugars to get those pearly whites. So, to close the understanding gap, we need the time to work on our minds.  We need to give our managers more resources, fewer deadlines, and the space to be vulnerable and have more purposeful conversations propelled by new data on health. Until we do this, the understanding gap will get bigger, and burnout will burn brighter.


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From Nick Holmes

Nick Holmes is an HR leader on a mission to make the workplace happy, healthy and safe, where individuals and teams can flourish. He is currently the Global Head of Professional Development at Fishawack Health.