What to Do and Where to Turn When an Employee Has a Mental Health Crisis

It may not be what you signed up for as a dance business owner, but the pandemic has made it clear that we all need to be ready to address mental health issues when our employees need us. 

Woman manager in dark blue shirt. looking empathetic, having a conversation with a young employee.
As team leader, holding regular one-on-one meetings with staff members can help create an environment of emotional safety, so that employees feel more comfortable sharing when they are struggling. Getty Images

As we enter the third year of COVID-19, the prolonged period of stress and trauma, social isolation, economic disruptions, financial worries, and just the sheer unpredictability of what comes next is triggering a mental health epidemic of its own. “We are facing a national mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come,” reports the American Psychological Association in its annual survey, Stress in America 2020

None of our teams or businesses will be immune to this crisis. Compared to 2019, a third of Gen Z adults report worse mental health, followed by Gen X (21 percent), millennials (19 percent), boomers (12 percent) and older adults (8 percent), according to the APA study. From short-lived over-reactions to stress to full-blown mental health crises, we’re going to see it all. And we need to be ready and able to deal with mental health issues when employees need us. 

It’s not going to be enough to just “follow your gut.” Mental health issues are too complex for that. Every dance business owner needs to learn some basics of mental-health first aid in the workplace. Here, we share some expert tips and resources that will help you learn the right approach when an employee is struggling. (A quick note before we get started: Check your local employment laws. You want to make sure that everything you do complies with local laws.)

Create an environment of emotional safety. 

This is the most important thing when dealing with mental health in the workplace. “A person [needs to be able to] have a conversation without fear of stigma or negative labeling,” says Liz Horvath, manager for workplace mental health at the Mental Health Commission of Canada, an organization that publishes many helpful guides. “They need to know that you are there to support them in their ability to succeed.” 

We need to create a workplace where it’s OK not to be OK. If your usual approach is “Suck it up,” and you’re worried that an atmosphere of emotional safety will lead to a less efficient team, then think again. According to studies, a culture of emotional safety is one of the keys to building a high-performance team. It allows your staff to share when they’re struggling, whether with a task or emotionally. In either case, they can get help, get better, and return to being a productive member of your team.

Take care whenever you speak about mental health issues. 

In particular, watch how you and your team talk about difficult customers. You can’t expect an employee to feel they’ll be respected in their struggles if your team is disrespectful of your customers.

Set up regular individual check-ins with each staff member.

Every week, choose a private space and a time that works for both you and the employee. Ask them how things are going. Are there any work issues? What are their challenges, what are their successes? These check-ins are an excellent time to talk about their strengths and remind them that they’re a valued part of the team. It’s not the time to do a performance review. Set up this pattern of checking in, and it will be easier for your staff to share when they may be struggling.

Learn to recognize indicators of a mental health problem. 

Not all employees will share that they’re struggling, so we need to be alert to signs. For example, it may show up in changes in their job performance or appearance. Is an employee more withdrawn than usual or do they seem to have had a loss in confidence? What about more frequent unexplained absences? You’ll find more possible signs of distress in Providing Mental Health First Aid to an Employee: A Manager’s Guide. The guide also does a great job of showing how to approach an employee, with a list of things to do and not to do, as well as tips for setting up a conversation in an appropriate manner. I urge you to read the guide, so you’re ready when your employee needs you.

Remember that your job is not to be your employee’s therapist. 

The key to a good meeting is to be open, supportive, and to listen. Retailers lean toward trying to be helpful, so it’s easy for us to slip into a parental or counseling role. But our employees don’t need that from us. We’re still their boss. They need us to be supportive, maybe to make accommodations in their work. And they need us to point them toward the right resources.

Consider taking a mental health first aid course. 

You’ve likely taken a physical first aid course; why not one for emotional first aid? The National Council for Mental Wellbeing and Mental Health First Aid Canada offer courses, many of them virtual.  

Familiarize yourself with online resources that could be helpful for you and your employees. 

Here are just a few:

Consider a stress-relief app as a perk for your staff. 

For instance, Headspace, the mindfulness and meditation app, has a Plus subscription for $69.99/year, with access to its full library of mindfulness exercises and meditation courses and animations. The company also offers Headspace for Work, a program that businesses can offer their employees. There’s also a free employer tool kit of mindfulness resources “to help you guide and support your team’s mental health through this global crisis.” Calm is another meditation app. Its Calm for Teams includes a premium subscription at a discount for teams of 5 to 100 members, as well as curated content for work.  

Investigate local mental health resources before you need them. 

You don’t want to wait until there’s a crisis to be scrambling to find help. Identify them now. Reach out and have a conversation with the programs. If you’ve already vetted the resource, your recommendation will carry more weight with your employee.

The Bottom Line

This mental health crisis is real. It will touch your team. We all need to be ready with the proper knowledge and resources. We need to be prepared to do the right thing. For the good of our business. And the lives we touch along the way.

Gilbert Russell is president of Brio Bodywear, which has two brick-and-mortar dancewear stores in Ottawa, Canada. Through his consulting firm, No Qualms Retail, he shares his experience and knowledge with other independent retailers.