How to talk to employees about mental health

The burden of mental disorders on health and productivity throughout the world has long been profoundly underestimated. The impact of mental health problems in the workplace has serious consequences not only for the individuals whose lives are influenced, but also for enterprise productivity. 

According to the mental health charity Mind, at any one time, at least one in six workers are experiencing common mental health problems, including anxiety and depression.   

Another study conducted by the Mental Health Foundation discovered 45% of employees were diagnosed with a mental health issue. 

This can stop people performing at their best. Organisations perform better when their staff are healthy, motivated and focused. 

Unfortunately, because of stigma attached, employees can be intimidated about telling their manager about a mental health problem and so problems can spiral. This silence feeds misunderstanding and prejudice which can make it harder for people to be open. One of the most successful ways to encourage employees to discuss their issues is to ensure that managers are appropriate and supportive in their response.

If you, being a line manager or colleague, think a member of your team may be experiencing a mental health problem, you need to take the lead and raise this with them.

The managers should be mindful and routinely ask staff how they are doing and discuss their mental health. Your empathy and consideration towards your employees will not go unappreciated. 90% of Millennials say they’re more likely to stay with their company if they believe the organisation identifies with their needs. 

Workers can be directly impacted by the behavior of their managers. The actions of managers can help reduce stigma in the workplace. As mental health is a deeply personal and sensitive subject – there are some guidelines to keep in mind when speaking mental health issues in your workplace 

  • First, choose an appropriate place and time, somewhere quiet with no interruptions if possible. 
  • Share your impression of what you have seen or heard. Give factual descriptions of what you witnessed.
  • Ask simple, open and non-judgmental questions and let people explain in their own words. Stay focused on the work issue you have seen/heard. Do not make assumptions.  
  • Ensure confidentiality, people need to be reassured of confidentiality. It’s sensitive information and should be shared with as few people as possible.  
  • Don’t try to be a diagnostician or counsellor, and don’t think that you have to have all the answers or solutions. 
  • Encourage people to seek advice and support. If your organisation has an Employee Assistance Program or access to a wellbeing service like the Smart Clinic, it may be able to arrange counselling.
  • Get guidance from your Human Resources consultant, especially if the employee is asking for reasonable accommodations. Follow your organisation’s policies on what information is needed to provide accommodations. 
  • Reassure employees – people 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. 

Once people are well, it can be easy to forget what they have learned about factors that affect their mental health. However, it is vital to help people reflect on this and develop a plan to promote positive and healthy behavior. Sometimes, a subtle (or more obvious) drop in performance is the signal that a fellow member might be experiencing distress. If you have to consider a disciplinary process or competence process, it is wise to keep an open mind as to whether a mental health concern could be part of the picture.

In a nutshell, managers need to be approachable and confident about mental health and should take steps to normalize conversations about mental health and encourage open dialogue. Regular one-to-one meetings and catchups are a great place to ask your staff how they’re getting on and doing this regularly will help build trust and give employees a chance to raise problems at an early stage.