Keep talking: Conversations about mental health in the workplace

Everyone has mental health that needs protecting, but problems can arise when we focus too much on statistics and not on having conversations.

So often, we hear figures like ‘1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime’. While it’s important to communicate how common mental health problems are, these figures can also be seen as othering. That is, mental ill health happens to someone other than us and the responsibility for conversations about mental health is not seen to be everyone’s responsibility.

mental health conversations

We need to encourage conversations around mental health in the workplace to break the stigma and normalise the fact we could all use help sometimes.

In reflection of Mental Health Awareness Week, Nuffield Health’s Brendan Street discusses how we can encourage these conversations year-round.

Be prepared

Mental health can be a sensitive subject and starting conversations without considering what you’re going to say and what you want your employees to gain, could mean you fail to make the most of the opportunity.

Start by creating a culture that celebrates openness and doesn’t discriminate. This means removing the sense of ‘othering’ that typically comes with using statistics like ‘1 in 4’ and moving to a culture of 4 in 4, as we all have mental health needs.

The best way to do this is getting buy-in from the top. If employees see managers and directors investing in employee wellbeing, they’ll be more likely to speak up, as the fear of discrimination is lifted.

Speak to an expert about how to approach the conversation. Doctors and psychotherapists can to advise you on the best ways to initiate conversations with employees and how to guide them. They may also be able to suggest some signs of mental distress you might notice, in those employees who don’t yet feel comfortable speaking out.

Being able to notice behaviour changes like irritability, turning up late or a decline in appearance means you can take an employee aside for an informal chat. It may be exactly what they need to begin their journey to better health.

Remember, using diagnostic or medical language can be daunting for employees, so stick to familiar terms that describe symptoms or feelings in common language.

The power of listening

While leading conversations around mental health can be a key move for your employees, sometimes what you don’t say can be as important as what you do.

Active listening is a technique that involves concentration and deep empathy with what the speaker is saying. Sometimes, the only speaking involved is repeating back what your employee has said to you or rephrasing it to demonstrate you’ve understood the meaning.

Research shows 15 percent of staff who’ve spoken to a manager about their mental health felt their disclosure was either dismissed or they were looked at differently by their employer.

Employees may only get the courage to speak once, so it’s crucial you’re ready to listen and demonstrate you’re actively listening so they feel understood.

Language isn’t just important in direct conversation, though. Listening out for language changes in employees day-to-day could be an early indication someone’s suffering, too.

Next steps to meaningful conversations

The first contact with a struggling employee is a huge step, but it’s important you initiate the right next steps going forward. Make sure they know your door is always open and point them towards any other designated people, like mental health first aiders or internal mental health champions.

At Nuffield Health, we introduced Emotional Literacy training for all staff. 92 percent of whom took the training stated they felt able to support a colleague in distress. Initiatives like this build an open community, and a common language, encouraging more people to speak out. They’re also inexpensive compared with costs resulting from not helping people, like presenteeism and absenteeism.

Employees suffering from mental ill health have the right to reasonable adjustments in the workplace to help them cope. Many managers will have ongoing conversations with internal HR departments to let them know about any working changes or to seek advice if support is needed.

For smaller businesses, there may not be an internal HR department available. What you provide will depend on your own company’s policies and resources. However, there are plenty of effective, inexpensive actions employers can take to relieve stress on employees.

Ask questions to get an idea of the immediate help you can offer. For example; if an employee is stressed or tired, consider offering more flexible or fewer working hours while they focus on their health. If they’re feeling helpless or alone, pencil in regular catchups, so they know they have someone to talk to.

There are also cost-effective tools available to support for struggling employees. Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) offer flexible service packages, giving employees access to help like phone lines and counselling sessions.

At Nuffield Health we introduced an online platform PATH, which uses a number of algorithms to determine a person’s risk factors and generate a tailored assessment for them.

The data collected is used to drive an organisation’s wellbeing strategy for the future, increasing the success rate and return on investment.

Smart employers cultivate culture and provide support for distress and mental ill health in the workplace, showing employees dialogue about mental health is both welcomed and expected.

By Brendan Street, professional head of emotional wellbeing, Nuffield Health