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How to Discuss Mental Health with an Employee

How to Discuss Mental Health with an Employee

For many people work is the most stressful factor in their lives but often staff don’t feel able to ask for help when they’re not coping. Silence adds to misunderstanding and prejudice which can make it harder for people to disclose how they feel.

Managers should make it part of their routine to check in with staff about how they’re doing. It helps build up people’s confidence to speak up earlier on and get the help they need sooner.

In approaching a conversation about a person’s mental health there are no special skills – just common sense, empathy, being approachable and listening.

You should never make assumptions about people’s mental health, but clues might include:

  • changes in people’s behaviour or mood or how they interact with colleagues;
  • changes in their work output, motivation levels and focus;
  • struggling to make decisions, get organised and find solutions to problems;
  • appearing tired, anxious or withdrawn and losing interest in activities and tasks they previously enjoyed;
  • changes in eating habits, appetite and increased smoking and drinking.

If you think a member of your team may be experiencing a mental health problem, you may need to take the lead and raise this with them, as people often don’t feel able to bring it up themselves. However, as their manager, you will know your employee best and it’s important you take the lead and talk with them yourself. The way you behave and the relationship you have with staff are key factors in shaping how employees respond when they’re experiencing stress and poor mental health.

It needn’t be awkward or difficult. Just as you would with physical health a good place to start is simply to ask someone how they’re doing. Start by establishing open communication (which should be maintained if people take time off for sickness absence) leading to understanding and appropriate support.

  • Choose an appropriate place, somewhere private and quiet where the employee feels comfortable.
  • Encourage people to talk. Employees can find it difficult to talk about their mental health, but it helps to have an open culture where conversations about mental health are routine and normalised. Ask simple, open and non-judgmental questions and let people explain in their own words how their mental health problem manifests, the triggers, how it impacts on their work and what support they need.
  • Don’t make assumptions or try to guess what symptoms an employee might have and how these might affect their ability to do their job. Many people are able to manage their mental health and perform their role to a high standard but may require support measures when experiencing a difficult period.
  • Listen and respond flexibly. Everyone’s experience of a mental health problem is different so treat people as individuals and focus on the person, not the problem. Adapt your support to suit the employee and involve people as much as possible in finding solutions to any work-related difficulties they’re experiencing.
  • Be honest and clear. If there are specific grounds for concern, like high absence levels or impaired performance, it’s important to address these at an early stage.
  • Ensure confidentiality. It’s sensitive information and should be shared with as few people as possible. Create strict policies to ensure this. Discuss with the employee what information he or she would like shared and with whom.
  • Develop an action plan. Work with your employee to develop an individual action plan which identifies the signs of the mental health problem, triggers for stress, the possible impact on work, who to contact in a crisis, and what support people need. The plan should include an agreed time to review the support measures to see if they’re working.
  • Encourage people to seek advice and support. Employees should speak to their GP about available support from the NHS such as talking therapy. If your organisation has an employee assistance programme, you may be able to arrange counselling.
  • Seek advice from OHA.
  • Be reassuring. Employees may not always be ready to talk straight away so it’s important you outline what support is available, tell them your door is always open and let them know you’ll make sure they get the support they need.


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Although every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this blog, nothing herein should be construed as giving advice and no responsibility will be taken for inaccuracies or errors.

Copyright © 2020 all rights reserved. You may copy or distribute this blog as long as this copyright notice and full information about contacting the author are attached. The author is Kate Russell of Russell HR Consulting Ltd.

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