What to Do When Someone on Your Team Tells You They Are Struggling With Their Mental Health

The divide between personal and professional life gets murky at times—especially during periods of personal hardship. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates 1 in 5 Americans experiences a mental illness in any given year, and recent mental health conditions related to the pandemic mean depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety are on the rise.

If your direct report tells you they’re struggling with their mental health, here’s what you can do to support them and still meet your organizational objectives.

How to Help a Coworker in a Crisis

1. Express concern.

It can be unsettling to discuss personal hardships in any environment—especially if the conversation is unexpected. If emotional disclosures make you squirm, fight the temptation to run. Instead, acknowledge the person’s feelings, express sympathy, and then ask about their welbeing. For example: “I’m so sorry to hear that. It sounds incredibly difficult. How are you coping?”

2. Provide scheduling accommodations.

Managers should offer flexibility when possible—for example, by allowing employees to work “core hours” between 11AM and 3PM, when all collaborative tasks occur. This structure lets employees schedule additional office hours according to their needs, thereby making it easier for them to work when they are most engaged and productive. Scheduling flexibility is essential for anyone who needs to attend doctor appointments, care for loved ones, or address other engagements related to their welfare. Even just offering this understanding can help improve your team’s mental health as they’ll feel supported and empowered to do what they need.

3. Build an inclusive workplace culture.

Solitude gives people time to ruminate, which can make personal hardships and depression even more challenging. To stave off emotional spiraling, create opportunities for colleagues to socialize throughout the day. Start weekly meetings with 10 minutes of catching-up time, host happy hours and group lunches, and make space (virtually or in person) for people to decompress together.

4. Empower your team.

A few words of encouragement will go a long way. Reward good work and vocalize your team’s accomplishments. When possible, counterbalance criticism with praise.

5. Limit the scope of their work.

Decide how much information an employee needs to know about their long-term goals. It might be helpful for individual contributors, for example, to focus on small tasks one at a time instead of looking at the big picture, which can feel overwhelming. If someone says they’re struggling, help them identify weekly or daily objectives that are realistic and obtainable.

6. Check in with yourself.

Business leaders must retain a level of objectivity. If you feel yourself becoming frustrated, exasperated, angry, or emotionally triggered, politely excuse yourself and take a moment to regain your composure. It’s important to listen to your team without taking their behavior personally.

7. Maintain professional boundaries.

It’s normal to occasionally confide in a colleague, but if these interactions start to affect your work, make you feel uncomfortable, or strain the interpersonal dynamics of your team, it might be time to establish boundaries. You can enforce limits on these conversations while exercising kindness and compassion. Start by thanking the individual for their confidence, and then gently steer the conversation to work.

Here’s an example of how you might phrase this: “Thank you for trusting me and explaining the situation. Is there anything I can do to make things easier for you at work?”

8. Offer additional resources.

If the situation is beyond your depth, be honest about it. For example, you might say, “Thank you for trusting me with your story. I’m here to listen and support you, but I’m not an expert in this area. Is there someone I can contact for you who can help?”

You should also be prepared to give your team information about employee assistance programs and human resources (HR), in case this situation arises.

Do’s and don’ts for socializing with coworkers

When Should You Talk to HR?

If someone could be in danger, it’s your responsibility to discuss those concerns with HR immediately—even if the employee asked you to keep the conversation private.

A reliable HR team can help:

  • Support employees who need accommodations.
  • Facilitate situational requests, like additional time off. 
  • Ensure employees have access to resources like counseling and mental health networks.
  • Mediate interpersonal conflicts at work.
  • Protect managers and the employer in legal situations. 
  • Document incidents and investigate claims of workplace harassment. 

Communicating these issues with the HR department also establishes a record that you can use to protect yourself against any potential fallout—for example, if your team misses deadlines or under-performs as a result of an unexpected hardship or extended leave. Even though it might feel like “snitching,” transparency and open communication will ultimately benefit all involved parties.

What Should You NOT Do if a Coworker Confides in You?

If someone discloses sensitive information to you, there are a few things you should avoid:

  • Don’t push them to disclose more information than they’re comfortable sharing.
  • Don’t offer advice, as this could backfire if the person follows your suggestion and then encounters any problems.
  • Don’t rush to judgement or assign moral value to the individual or their actions.
  • A man listens on the at work phone while receiving bad news.Don’t assume the person has a mental illness because they were emotionally expressive or behaved unexpectedly.
  • Don’t broadcast information that was told to you in confidence.
  • Don’t play the role of de facto psychologist or shrink.
  • Don’t dismiss or invalidate a person’s emotions or experiences.
  • Don’t call anyone sensitive, dramatic, or weak, and don’t attribute their behaviors to societal norms or stereotypes. 
  • Don’t compare your experiences with another person’s reality. 
  • Don’t use empty platitudes, like “This will pass,” or “You’ll get over it.”

Webinar: Learn more about crisis management from Katz Graduate School of Business

Many people still work productively, even during periods of personal hardship. If your employee’s symptoms affect their work, it might be time to get HR involved. By coordinating with the employee and a supportive network in HR, you can come up with a plan that addresses everyone’s needs. For more tips on team management and leadership, follow the Ivy Exec blog or sign up to meet with a mentor.

About the Author

Rachel Lake is a writer and editor in New York City. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. To get in touch with Rachel, contact her on LinkedIn.