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Leadership Coach: Managers Aren't Doing Enough to Support Anxious Employees—Here's How to Start

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Demand for anxiety management classes skyrocketed almost 4,000% in 2020, according to user metrics from the online learning platform Udemy for Business.

Author, speaker and Wharton instructor Deborah Grayson Riegel isn't surprised by the dramatic increase. These days, Riegel teaches online courses on anxiety, stress and resiliency several times a week. A year ago, she got requests to discuss mental health in the workplace just once or twice per year.

"This crisis is still acute, especially since it's truly a collection of crises. That isn't surprising," Riegel says. "What is surprising is that many employees feel like they should be 'over it' already, and many leaders think that checking in on their employees' mental health and emotional wellbeing is overstepping, overrated or no longer relevant."

Study after study indicates workers are feeling more anxiety and not enough employer support as the pandemic continues.

"Everybody has a range of challenges," Riegel tells CNBC Make It. "It's false and irresponsible to have our own experience, even if we're finding ways to cope, and to project that onto anyone else."

There are many ways companies can continue to support their employees' wellbeing during the pandemic, such as offering teletherapy benefits, flexible schedules and paid time off for personal needs.

Riegel adds that leaders should be more proactive in checking in on their employees and offers four ways to do it well — plus, advice to employees who aren't feeling supported by their manager.

1. Check in with everybody — and more than once

As a manager, you might hesitate to ask employees directly how they're doing because it feels overly personal. However, one April 2020 survey of 2,000 employees found that more than half, about 58%, are comfortable with their manager proactively asking them about their mental health. Less than half of respondents, 47%, said their manager is actually attuned to their wellbeing.

Let your reports know ahead of time that you'd like to touch base about how they're feeling and assure them you're having this conversation with everyone on the team, Riegel says. That way the individual doesn't feel singled out for performance issues, and they get a better sense that this is a bigger collective effort.

Then make this routine, Riegel adds. "We tend to reach out only once because we don't want to overstep, and it feels awkward, but please don't reach out only once," she says. "How I feel today may be different from how I felt yesterday."

2. Connect employees with the right resources

Just because you're in a position of leadership doesn't mean you have to have all the answers, Riegel says. But it does mean you have to know where to find the answers and steer your employees in the right direction.

Get to know what resources you have available through your company, such as employee resource groups or a health benefits portal for new pandemic-related programs. If you know of broader resources in your community that can help, you can pass along those contacts as well.

"When somebody is willing to talk to you about what they need, you don't have to be their therapist or best friend, but you do have to be a good listener and bridge to resources," Riegel explains.

3. Be as vulnerable as you feel comfortable with

Riegel encourages managers to create space for honest dialogue by starting with how they're really feeling. For example, if between your personal and professional responsibilities you've felt exhausted or plagued by decision fatigue, you can start the conversation from a place of empathy and invite your colleague to share if they feel similarly.

This approach can foster a stronger sense of psychological safety, or the feeling that people can ask questions, raise concerns and pitch ideas without undue repercussions. Speaking up about your struggles and needs will never feel entirely effortless, but by modeling it yourself, your employees can feel like it's the right thing to do, and that they can do so freely.

4. Depersonalize the feeling

Riegel likes to have clients express how they're feeling using different scales and analogies for reference.

For example, she might say: Imagine you're a candle. How is your candle burning? Is it burning at both ends? Is it burning steadily, flickering every now and then, or blowing out completely? Can you light it at all?

On a scale of 1 to 10, where a 1 means you're completely burned out and 10 means you're ready to double your workload, where is your energy level today?

Another frame of reference: What's your weather pattern today? Is it stormy, clear, or cloudy with peaks of sunlight?

Discussing how you're feeling in these terms can depersonalize it and make it easier to talk about.

Finally, employees not getting support can advocate for themselves

If your manager isn't reaching out to ask what you need, you can advocate for yourself. Riegel says it can feel awkward to talk about how you're struggling but cautions against using that as an excuse to stay quiet.

Mention to your manager that the conversation is tough but worth having, Riegel says. You can also flip the script and see how your manager is doing. Riegel suggests framing it like, "I'm having a tough time and want to share that with you, and I also want to see how you're doing if nobody's checked in with you."

"Approach the conversation with generosity and shared goals," Riegel says. Express what you're having a hard time with — too many Zoom meetings, for example — as well as a solution of what would improve your ability to work right now — like one consolidated meeting at a different time of day and over the phone.

Ultimately, Riegel hopes discussing mental health in the workplace, and developing a stronger vocabulary for it, becomes standard long after the risks of the coronavirus subside.

"It doesn't mean people are more comfortable with it, but it's the norm as opposed to saying, 'It's not something we talk about at work,'" Riegel says. "Every day we're chipping away at the stigma of discussing mental health and wellness at work. You can be challenged by anxiety and depression and still be able to do a good job."

Check out:

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