How to Talk to an Employee About Mental Health

Talking to employees when you notice they may be struggling, or when others have reported observations or difficulties to you can be daunting. However, part of supporting mental health in the workplace is being aware and able to have conversations with those who may be struggling.

While the initial appearance of symptoms related to mental health concerns can be sudden, immediate, it is often a more gradual process. Usually, there are a multitude of changes in a person’s behaviors or functioning that may indicate the presence of mental health concerns. For example, some general signs to watch for may include loss of interest in work, withdrawal from activities, increased accidents or safety problems, a decline in physical appearance, lateness, or frequent absences.

When considering approaching someone about mental health concerns, it is crucial to think about how to best engage in these conversations, including the manner in which you speak, along with the specific words and phrases you will use. It can be helpful to consider this in the context of how you would like to be approached if you were the one struggling.

When we work to support mental health concerns in the workplace it benefits both employees and employers.

It is important that you approach the conversation from a place of concern and as a workplace performance issue. Before you talk to the person, consider what your or others’ concerns for their health and well-being are, along with the specific behaviour or performance issue that has become an issue: Is there a duty or obligation that the person is not currently meeting? Are there any behaviours having a negative effect on others in the workplace?

While my intent is not to oversimplify these sometimes-difficult conversations, below are five general steps you should take when talking to someone about mental health concerns. Keep in mind that every conversation will be unique and require some thought beyond these five points:

1. Prepare for the conversation.

Plan what you are going to say, including what observations you will make and the questions you will ask. Review your plan with someone else. Choose a suitable time and location to ensure privacy and confidentiality, and be sure to allow enough time and be prepared to listen.

2. Initiate the conversation.

Start the conversation by acknowledging the person’s skills and contributions to the workplace. Assure the person that you will respect their privacy and confidentiality. Begin from a place of concern and be specific about observable behaviours.

3. Explore and broaden the conversation.

Be curious and ask open-ended questions as it is important to clarify the facts. Do not assume you have the answers. Define the important issues and impact on the work environment or work performance.

4. Generate options and offer support.

Collaborate to achieve desired outcomes. Work on solutions together. Consider adjustments that could be made for both employer and employee, and consider if accommodations or a leave of absence is needed.

5. Create an action plan.

Define specific steps to be taken by all parties. Review the action plan together and consider when you will follow up on the plan.

There are many positive benefits when organizations and leaders have the skills required to have conversations with staff about mental health concerns. Employees are more likely to feel supported, and early identification and support typically lead to continued productivity and employee retention.

As leaders, we need our employees to function at a high level to support the mission and vision of our organization. But when people are not mentally healthy, it’s next to impossible to function at a high level. When we work to support mental health concerns in the workplace it benefits both employees and employers.

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Randy Grieser, Author & Speaker

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