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Workplace mental health – have the conversation

This article serves as a reminder to managers of the prime position they are in to spot the signs of a staff member who might be struggling with their mental health.

As a manager you will likely regularly interact with your staff members, sometimes more frequently than they will see or speak to family and friends. If you show interest, this could give you valuable insight into their personal and work-related welfare on a consistent basis.

In order to make the most of your vantage point and to be able to identify when an individual’s mental health is declining, it is key that you take the time to get to know your staff members; particularly where many of us will try to cleverly mask the true status of our wellbeing.

You need to understand what good mental health looks like for each individual, or their ‘normal’, so you can recognise when a change happens, which could be signalling something deeper.

As a manager you have a duty of care to your staff members; however, the hope would be that your motivation is more than just a piece of legislation that is holding you accountable, but on a human-to-human level wanting to help and support a person in your team.

It is common for managers to be reluctant to initiate mental health related conversations, for fear of saying the wrong thing, because it feels uncomfortable, or because of a perception that the person won’t want to confide in them, or perhaps that they will! If this is you, whilst it is natural to feel nervous or hesitant, it is important to challenge yourself on any barriers you put in the way of the conversation, because ultimately you are doing your staff member a disservice in not doing so.

It is important to bear in mind that, whilst mental ill health is a sensitive and personal issue, most people prefer honest and open enquiries over reluctance to address the issue. Often staff members will not feel confident in speaking up, so a manager making the first move to initiate a dialogue is vital.

If you have concerns about a staff member’s wellbeing, don’t let the opportunity pass by, ‘eat the frog’, have the conversation, it could make a big difference to someone’s day, week, month, …even life, and here are some tips on how.

  • Arrange a private meeting at a mutually convenient time and a suitable location where the individual will feel comfortable.
  • Give yourself plenty of time for the meeting with no distractions. People can easily sense when someone is not 100% present. If you are in a hurry or your mind is elsewhere, the person is much less likely to want to confide in you.
  • Familiarise yourself with your company’s internal mental health policies and resources, so you have this information to draw upon should you need to.
  • Before the meeting take the time to think about what your concerns are and prepare examples to assist your explanation.
  • Check whether you have developed any pre-judgements about the person’s situation and try to put these aside, with the intention of approaching the conversation with an open mind.
  • Mention the changes in behaviour that have caused you to be concerned and present the examples you have prepared in a respectful way.
  • The person may initially be evasive or defensive – don’t accept ‘I’m fine’ as an answer, enquire further.
  • Approach the conversation from a place of concern and curiosity about the person’s wellbeing. Avoid coming across as punitive or dismissive.  
  • Ask simple, open questions to encourage the person to speak candidly.
  • Actively listen without judgement and don’t feel that you need to fill all the silences. Silence can be very powerful and allows the person time to think.
  • Be clear on your role and limitations. Don’t attempt to diagnose, counsel, or solve someone’s problems. Often people simply want to have to opportunity to talk and to be truly heard.
  • Try to establish if there is anything work related contributing to their distress.  
  • Signpost to professional support – as appropriate (e.g. GP, internal workplace resources, Local / National resources). If you are unsure who to signpost to, offer to both look online together and/or seek advice and follow-up after the meeting.
  • Don’t feel like you have to have all the answers or jump in to action. You can tell the employee that you need to reflect on what you have heard and arrange a follow-up.
  • If you agree any adjustments that will be visible to others, establish what they would like their colleagues to know, if anything, and who will communicate this.
  • Agree what will happen next and who will take what action. 
  • Consider the reasons why they might be reluctant to talk to you and attempt to address these. Are they worried about you judging them, their job security or that your response will be unsympathetic.
  • Reassure them that anything they tell you will be kept confidential, except where there is a potential health and safety risk to either them or others.
  • Consider whether you are the best person to speak with them, or is there someone else in the company that you think they would be more comfortable confiding in. 
  • If the person finds it too difficult to talk at that time or does not wish to, reassure them that your door is always open.
  • Check back in with the person at regular intervals to give them further opportunities to confide in you should they decide to.
  • Continue to be observant to any changes in behaviour.

  • If you agreed any actions in the meeting, ensure you follow up in a timely manner.
  • In the event that you believe the person is in immediate danger of taking their own life, dial 999 and call an ambulance – do not leave them alone.

As well as responding to concerns about your staff members’ wellbeing as they arise, also take the time to consider what proactive changes you can make in your workplace to normalise the conversation about mental health, to empower people to come forwards if they are struggling.

Are your managers trained in mental health awareness, do you regularly communicate your mental health resources, is wellbeing a topic on your one-to-one meeting agendas?

The evidence shows that if people who are experiencing early symptoms of mental ill health feel able to talk about them, particularly in the workplace, it can prevent the symptoms from developing into illness.

If you have any questions in relation to this article or would like further advice on mental health in the workplace, please feel free to get in touch with a member of our team.

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The information contained in this blog post is provided for guidance and is a snapshot of the law at the time it is written. It is provided for your information only and should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice that it specific to your particular circumstances.

The guidance should not be relied upon in any decision making process. It is strongly recommended that you seek advice before taking action.


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