For employees to stay well and in work, it's vital for them to be able to talk to managers about stress and mental health.
If you think a member of your team may be experiencing a mental health problem, you may need to take the lead, open up a dialogue and raise the matter directly with them. To start with, you may find it helpful to consider the following:
- Engaging in self-reflection
and identifying what support you may need to manage your own anxiety about mental health conversations as well as aiming to recognise your own tendencies, discomforts and triggers in that area, which can help you prepare for a sensitive discussion with your employee
Focusing on responding as opposed to reacting
It is important to not overreact, especially if you are experiencing anxiety about broaching the subject (also remember that it is natural to experience anxiety about it). For example, it may be important and helpful to refer an employee to HR or OH however it is also key to not escalate things too rapidly (in other words, it is best to allow time to consider things carefully)
- How to approach the conversation
It might be best to engage in a compassionate, supportive, curious, positive and not overly formal manner.
Key things to consider when planning to initiate a conversation about mental health with your employee:
- Choose an appropriate time and place (for example, somewhere private and quiet where you will not be disturbed).
It may be helpful to consider a more neutral space, if possible. You can also ask your employee where they would prefer to meet.
- Set up the right conditions for active listening and supportive stance
It may be helpful to sit near them or being beside them (rather than opposite them or behind the desk). Working from home may require you to demonstrate active listening more verbally on a phone call or video call. Be mindful of your body language and your tone of voice. Try to be warm and calm and convey openness.
- Ask open questions & share observations
Ask simple, open and non-judgmental questions. You can start by asking how they are. Do not be afraid to be more direct by saying: ‘I have noticed that you have not been yourself lately, how are you feeling?. Reassure them that you are here to listen and to offer help and support if they need it. Ask them, what support they have in place and what they do to look after themselves; ask when it might be good to check in with them again.
- Do not be afraid to ask again
Sometimes people think that you are just being polite by asking how they are. Asking twice can clearly convey that you are genuinely interested. If you say, “are you sure everything is okay?” can help send a message that you are not merely going through the motions and even if they are not ready to talk about it, they may feel more reassured that you are there to listen. At the same time, do not be push too hard (that is, if you already asked twice) and respect that an individual may not be ready and willing to talk at that point or that perhaps they feel they are doing okay.
Be prepared that people may not be ready to talk but regardless of whether your employee is able or willing to talk or not, outline what support is available and remind them that your door is always open and that you will endeavour to ensure they will get the support they need.
- Practice active listening and non-judgmental attitude
It might be helpful to be mindful of how well we convey empathy and pay attention to self-regulating in order to demonstrate supportive stance and make appropriate decisions.
- Normalise their struggles
The overreaching message that needs to be communicated is: ‘we are all human and we all have mental health. Talking about it makes a significant difference’. As a manager, you do not have to disclose a mental health problem and you might not have any personal experience of one but if you are comfortable (and if appropriate), you may share your feelings and say that you get down or overwhelmed sometimes or share something you have been worried about lately. Be careful however not to overshare and ‘hijack’ the conversational space. Drawing on your experience can be powerful though and it is another tool that can help destigmatise the issue and convey that you are happy to talk about feelings without judgment.
- Respond flexibly. Be person centred and tailor your support to the individual and involve them as much as possible in finding solutions to work relates issues. Often, effective workplace adjustments are individual and temporary and does not require huge or costly measures.
- Be honest and clear
If there are any serious or specific grounds for concern, such as level of absence or those related to performance, be transparent about them from the start so that they can be addressed, and an employee supported at an early stage.
- Be positive
By focusing on what they employee can do, rather than what they are unable to do.
- Ensure confidentiality (however do not promise confidentiality if an employee is suicidal and at risk to themselves).
Remember that an employee may need to be reassured of confidentiality. It is pertinent to discuss with them what information they are comfortable sharing and with whom.
- Develop wellness action plan
Work collaboratively with your employee to develop a clear action plan that outlines signs of their mental health problems, triggers for stress, potential impact on their work, who to contact in crisis, and finally what support they will need. The plan should also identity agreed time for reviews to evaluate the effectiveness of support measures, tweaking them if necessary.
Ensure that the measures are not counterproductive - it is important that people are not treated differently for example by being asked to do something others are not required to do or that they are not micromanaged or that the adjustments do not damage their self-esteem further (here, communication is key- do not assume that taking them off the big project will help them by decreasing their workload, instead explain your intention and check whether it would indeed be helpful for them as sometimes we have good intentions but people end up worrying that they are seen as redundant and begin to feel anxious about ‘being pushed out’ of the organisation).
It is also key to provide some concrete options such as: ‘Would you like to take some time off? Would greater flexibility in your start and finish times help? Shall we look at your workload and reprioritise your commitments? Are there some tasks that you particularly enjoy and want to do more of?’.
- Encourage them to seek support and professional help
It is important to prompt an employee to speak to their GP about available support in the NHS or to engage in EAP and any other support that is available through the organisation.
- Follow up
Ensure there is consistency and regular opportunities to check in and review how an employee is doing.
- Seek advice and support yourself
Be proactive in looking after your own mental health as otherwise you will not be able to support others.
Written by Dr Anna Wachowska, Counselling Psychologist for Psych Health, a Health Partners company.