Leaders Helping Employees with Their Mental Health

We have another guest blogger this week, Tracy Boggiano, who was supposed to take the stage at SQLBits to talk regarding mental health, so we thought we’d give Tracy the chance to take to the virtual stage to discuss the very important conversation of mental health, but in the form of a blog post!

Take it away, Tracy!

Having been out of work past year for mental health-related issues related to stress at work, and a few other times in my career, I thought a blog post on how a leader at work can better support an employee with mental health issues to help prevent these situations from happening would be beneficial.  And having supposed to present on it at SQLBits and SQLBits asking to blog about mental health at the same time I started writing this.

I’m sharing some information on how to support an employee after they come back to work, as I was open with my manager knowing I was out of work due to my mental illness.  I’ve given a presentation on mental health a few dozen times which you can see here.  I have a few blog posts also discussing different aspects of my mental health that you may find here. 

I’ve also created a curated list of mental health resources on GitHub that I hope others will contribute that I plan on growing to contain lots of resources.

#BeKind in a nature background for mental health awareness

Talking to an Employee

First, one thing to remember before talking to an employee. If you are nervous or uncomfortable, that’s normal and absolutely OK.  This is a sensitive subject that you may not know a whole lot about and involves a person’s personal life.  Remember it takes courage and vulnerability to talk about mental health, especially in a position of leadership.

Now to address some common fears such as:

  • “I don’t want to say the wrong thing and make them feel awkward or worse.”
  • “I’m their boss. Mental health is personal. I don’t think I’m allowed to bring that up to them.”
  • “I’m not a therapist. What if I ‘open Pandora’s box’ and they start coming to me all the time?”

These are also very valid. You are trying to help, if you approach the subject with compassion, it still may be awkward you won’t make it worse, they will feel better that they don’t have to suffer through work will feeling the way they do. Just give them the option to not to have to talk about it. If you don’t know if you are allowed to bring it up check with your human resources department or company policy manual, I doubt it has anything in there saying not since most companies never talk about mental health or illness (although that is slowly changing).  Yes, you are not a therapist but aren’t trying to be, you are trying to make sure they know you can support them but helping out with what you can at work and help them find resources outside of work to help them.

Women Writing a mental health to do list

Now that we have addressed fears, let’s look at how you can prepare.

Ask yourself if you feel equipped to have these conversations.  If you don’t, you may need to do some research on how best to do this (There are some books listed on my GitHub page to help with this).  Ask yourself as a leader… Do you feel comfortable talking about your own mental health with your team? One thing I appreciate that my current boss does is he ask us in our team meeting, once a week, to put a green, yellow, or red for our current mental health.  Now, this can be a bit intimating at first when you join a new team but as seeing other teammates opening up and you opening up regarding it, it’ll help them be more honest and real about how they are doing. They may only talk about how work is affecting them, which is fine, but our team does mention personal stuff, even if it’s just one sentence.  Do you feel comfortable talking to your manager or leader about your mental health?  That sets a tone.  Why do you want to speak about mental health with your team?  Make sure you are doing it because you care, not to just check off a checkbox.  By asking these questions it helps open up your ability to talk to an employee.

Making a Wellness Action Plan

OK, so now you talked to an employee, one on one, after finding out they are having issues. What can you do to help them?  This can take the form of helping them make a Wellness Action Plan, if they are willing to.  If you have been talking about mental health openly, a team exercise may be a good suggestion and they will probably be open to this idea.  Here is a link to the full process on creating a Wellness Action Plan (WAP) with employees you lead.  I’ll briefly talk about this since there is a complete guide.  A WAP helps you do four main things:

  • Help you structure and start conversations about mental health with your employees
  • Help you understand your employees’ experiences and needs
  • Help with identifying and considering reasonable adjustments
  • Help ensure employees returning to work after absence are appropriately supported

You should provide the employee with the guide and ask them to give a try by completing it and then schedule time to go over and complete it with them.

Women at desk with piles of work looking unhappy

Being Supportive When an Employee Takes Leave

One thing I find lacking is support received from leaders when an employee takes leave.  Having had leave four times in my career for mental health issues and having been open with my bosses about it, the responses (or lack of them) have all been the same.  The key things to do are:

  • Treat them equally just like someone out with a physical illness.
  • Talk to the employee – agree on how frequently and by what means.  All my bosses have turned into ghost while I’m out and would have made me feel better if they checked on me.  Twice I was out for 6 weeks and that’s a long time to go without someone checking on you.
  • Reassure them they can contact you with concerns.  I must say, one boss seemed understanding, I had come to him when I thought things were getting dicey, but they all seemed aloof about being about to talking to them once I was out on leave.
  • Respect Confidentiality
    • Agree what can be shared with colleagues.  This I feel was respected in my jobs.
    • Ask who they want to hear from (this can help them fell less isolated and help with a smoother return).  This was not discussed at all.  People are friends with some of their co-workers, so being isolated away for extended period of time feels odd.
    • Just like someone who is physically ill, send a “get well card” or whatever you would a physically ill employee.  When I had knee surgery I got flowers, I didn’t get anything when I was out for my mental health, not even an email wishing well.
  • Encourage them to rest and not access work emails.  I’ve actually been requested to work at a couple of jobs while on leave.  Yeah, that’s technically violating all kinds of legal rules.

Meeting between manager and employee with a checklist sat at a coffee table

Talking to an Employee for Their Return to Work

Offer to meet with them before their return to work, even these days with everything being virtual.  Catch them up on changes at work, don’t let them be surprised by a whole of big changes or big projects that have occurred.

See how they really are doing, face-to-face. Be positive, focus on what they can do rather than what they can’t upon their return but don’t ignore limitations.  Take things slow, don’t throw them right back in fray as they start.  Give them at least a month to reacclimate.

Find out if their aspects of work that contributed to their absence.  You may need to make some changes to your leadership style, or their workload, or how interactions are between teammates.  Encourage them to be honest about this.

Ask them what their main concern is about returning to work.  Try to address as best you can and if you can make adjustments.  If you don’t have answers to their questions, reassure them you find out answers and will get back to them.

Explain any changes that have occurred that effect their job: new projects, responsibilities that have been reassigned, company reorgs, etc.

Make a plan for their first day, week, and month back with realistic objectives.  Have this made in advance of meeting with them and go over and see that they think.  See if they think it is reasonable.

Reassure them they are not expected to hit the ground running. On their first day back, make them feel welcomed and included. As time goes on make sure there is time to talk together and review how things are going.  Meet with them and make sure they are on track with the plan you laid out for their return.  Revisit the WAP you created if they created it with you.


Being a leader is hard, having these conversations can be uncomfortable but the more you have them the easier it becomes.  If you make it part of the team culture it makes it easier and makes it easier for you employee to open up.  Be the difference on your team and make mental health a normal part of conversation!