Many employers offer Employee and Family Assistance Programs and benefit plans covering psychological services because they recognize that workers bring their whole selves to their jobs. A stressor at home can still impact a person’s mental health (and performance) when they’re at work. But what about stressors in the workplace?

Part of managing workplace mental health and related issues is about proactively preventing mental harm by reducing or eliminating workplace hazards. To do this effectively, workplaces must frequently assess and then address these hazards.

Managing workplace issues that impact worker mental health and well-being

Supervisors play a key role in managing physical hazards in the workplace. They must also be aware of psychosocial hazards.

Perhaps the most significant of these workplace hazards is chronic mental stress, which is when an individual is exposed to ongoing stressors—whether at work or at home—without relief. Over time, this can erode the person’s capacity to deal with other stressors, including what we would call the “normal” stresses of life. This can result in emotional or relationship problems, depression, anxiety, performance issues, and more.

Understanding chronic mental stress as a potential hazard allows employers to recognize the early signs and take appropriate action before that stress causes disability. It also means that steps can be taken to identify sources of work-related stress and prevent them from causing harm. Check out this process for preventing and managing chronic mental stress for ways to implement stress prevention and manage chronic mental stress with your teams.

Responding to an employee who is struggling with mental health, addiction or related issues

When it comes to workplace mental health, supervisors may be faced with addressing a number of challenging topics. Workplace Strategies for Mental Health offers tools and guidance for tackling some of these issues, including:

And although very few employees with mental illness ever have an episode of psychosis at work, by learning how to respond, you can improve the outcome for all concerned.

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Seeking to support and listening to understand

It is important to use good communication skills when discussing any topic at work. Those skills are even more necessary when talking about sensitive mental health matters, or when communicating with emotional employees.

When a worker approaches you with a concern, it’s not enough just to hear their words. A good listener tries to understand what the speaker truly means, and shows they are making that effort.

Here are some ways to do that:

  • Maintain eye contact with the speaker, but be aware of involuntary eye and facial expressions (e.g., how a furrowed brow or squinting can imply confusion or skepticism).
  • Don’t interrupt the speaker, and avoid the impulse to fill pauses in the conversation.
  • Ask for clarification when necessary. It’s okay to admit when you don’t understand.
  • Resist the urge to find an immediate solution. Instead of thinking about your response, focus your attention on what’s being said—and understanding the speaker’s perspective.
  • Reflect on what you’ve heard after the conversation is over, then follow up in a timely manner.

People who’ve mastered “active listening” techniques—such as maintaining focus and demonstrating that they’re paying attention—may still be frustrated by the response (or non-response) they get from a coworker who is upset or may be experiencing a mental health issue. By going further and listening to understand, you set yourself up to gain a better understanding of your coworker’s perspective without causing further harm.