Ask Dr. Katharina Koch: How can leaders deal with complicated issues like mental health? 

Everything you need to know about work, mental health, and HR – from an expert. Join us in our series with Dr. Katharina Koch, a Clinical Psychologist certified in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Head of Psychology here at nilo.health. In this edition Katharina will answer frequently asked questions about how HR can support leaders and how they can deal with complicated issues like mental health.

What is the real impact leaders have on their employees’ mental health?

How can I, and other leaders in my company, deal with complicated issues like mental health?

How should I talk to one of my employees if I’m worried they’re struggling?

What is the real impact leaders have on their employees’ mental health?

The impact is massive. According to a Forbes survey, 69% of people say that their manager has the biggest impact of any other person on their mental health — that’s equal to the impact of a partner! 

Unsurprisingly, good leadership that values psychological safety and employee well-being leads to good results. Studies have shown that empathetic leadership can boost innovation by 61%, engagement by 76%, and success in maintaining a healthy work-life balance by a whopping 86%. You’ll also boost employee retention, by creating a secure workplace where people will be happy to spend their days and energy.

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How can I, and other leaders in my company, deal with complicated issues like mental health?

Invest in ongoing training. For both yourself and other leaders, make sure you’re getting regular training in areas like psychological safety, how to lead in a healthy way, how to spot the signs of mental health issues at work, how to provide feedback, and more. You’ll empower yourself and your staff to recognize signs of distress in themselves and their colleagues and equip everyone with skills to provide initial support. Training also helps to break down stereotypes and misconceptions, prevent stress, and protect your team’s mental well-being.

This can help you to:

  • Have the conversations: Ensure your employees feel supported, not cornered or pressured, and express your interest from a point of care. Ask what your employees need to improve, offer support and plan a way forward (including follow-up meetings to show commitment).
  • Watch for warning signs: Provide support in the early stages by looking out for warning signs like a change in employee behavior or performance, frequent absences, withdrawal, and more.
  • Practice active listening: Ensure your employees feel heard, and use the situation to reflect on and learn about structures in your workplace which might be contributing to the problem.

How should I talk to one of my employees if I’m worried they’re struggling?

Create a setting that doesn’t turn into a confrontation. No one should feel cornered or pressured. A good starting point is to express your interest from a point of care. Use phrases like “I’m worried… ” or “I can see that…” and show your appreciation for them. You can indicate specific changes or irregularities you noticed and ask for their opinion/perspective, but don’t pressure them. What and how much they share is entirely up to them. 

Don’t mention any consequences or the impact on the company. Ask them what they need to improve their situation, offer support, and plan a way forward. Schedule a follow-up meeting so you can continue supporting them, showing that you’re serious about continuing to help them after this initial conversation.

It’s not necessarily important to have a long conversation or find immediate answers – it’s really about reinforcing that person’s sense of psychological safety so you can find a way forward together. 

When someone’s really struggling, you need to involve a mental health professional. Just as you wouldn’t try to patch up an employee’s broken leg on your own, you need to be prepared to get them the right medical care!

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