Ask a Manager: This advice can help if a boss wants you to 'cry a little' or make a feelings chart

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Work is a common stressor for 61% of Americans, right behind money at 62%, according to a 2017 report by the American Psychological Association.

As companies start to recognize that their employees' mental health issues may be work-related, many are attempting to help workers deal with them. A healthier workforce could save them money in the long run: After all, one study projected that, between 2016 and 2030, a lack of treatment for anxiety and depression could cost the world 12 billion days worth of work and $925 billion per year.

Alison Green, founder of the advice column Ask a Manager, tells Grow that in the last two years she's seen an uptick in questions about how to deal with workplace activities that are supposed to improve your mental health but in practice can be pretty uncomfortable. "[Companies] have taken the message that increased openness about mental health is a good thing — but their execution is terrible," she says.

One of her letter writers says their manager created a feelings chart where different emojis represented different mental states. Employees had to place a sticker with their name on it on the emoji that best represented their emotions that day. Another letter writer says their manager asked them to write and share with their colleagues a poem that should reveal a personal trauma. "Make yourself cry a little" were the manager's instructions.

[Companies] have taken the message that increased openness about mental health is a good thing — but their execution is terrible.
Alison Green
Ask a Manager columnist

These kinds of activities may be awkward but they aren't illogical. The ability to be authentic at work does improve job satisfaction, performance, and employee engagement, according to a 2013 study.

But you can't mandate that people share personal details with their coworkers, Green says.

"It's important for managers to recognize that they're managing humans with lives outside of work, but I think some employers have decided vulnerability at work is good for forming connections," she says. "But it's requiring it ⁠— that's the problem. You can't require people to be vulnerable at work."

The power dynamic between employees and managers makes it unacceptable, says psychologist Lisa Marie Bobby, clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching in Boulder, Colorado. A boss cannot demand emotional intimacy the same way they cannot demand physical intimacy. "This is like an emotionally traumatizing twin sister of sexual harassment," she says.

You can't require people to be vulnerable at work.
Alison Green
Ask a Manager columnist

In both of the above-mentioned cases, Green offered the same advice: You can push back on such activities. You might also poll fellow coworkers to see if they, too, were made uneasy.

About the first letter writer's feelings chart, she observed that managers sometimes don't know what they should be to their employees. They "have an amorphous idea that they're some combination of parent/doctor/therapist/martinet/king."

With the poem, she added, it was also OK for the letter writer to "ignore some of the instructions" and only write a poem they felt comfortable sharing.

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Even if these activities weren't uncomfortable, Bobby says, they wouldn't be helpful. "Oversharing, emotional outbursts, over-disclosing, and indulging in all thoughts and feelings are exactly the opposite of how people who are healthy conduct themselves," she says. The activities also assume that there is comfort and confidentiality among coworkers, which is often not the case.

Instead, Bobby suggests group training sessions about emotional intelligence, communication skills, and leadership skills: "Getting support around how to create emotionally safe environments that respect boundaries, and how to foster understanding, empathy, healthy professional connections, and shared enthusiasm will go a lot further to improve everyone's mental health than compulsory sharing would."

Green suggests that managers might just need to fine-tune their strategies for encouraging good mental health among workers. "It's coming from a good place but, as a society, we're maybe still working out the details," she says.

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