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How to have Conversations about Mental Health in the Workplace

Having conversations about mental health can feel difficult. Ali Grady, Director of The Thrive Team and Mental Health First Aid Instructor shares her tips on how to have a conversation with someone who may be struggling.

Encouraging open and honest conversations about mental health is one of the six core standards of the 2017 Thriving at Work report which sets out what companies can do to help those experiencing poor mental health to remain in work and thrive.

There are some pretty stark statistics around workplace mental health. Many of us are familiar that 1 in 4 people experience mental health issues each year but did you know the cost of mental health issues at work is £1,300 for every employee? Yes, that’s why we’re championing conversations about Mental Health.

During the past few months, you can’t have escaped the mental health agenda. Lockdown has seen a plethora of information about mental health and looking after ourselves and our teams. But unless you’re already well-versed in conversations about mental health it can feel daunting and awkward.

According to Mental Health First Aid England, 57% of UK employees say they have experienced mental health issues at work but less than half of that group felt confident to open up about it by having real conversations about mental health. I’d suggest that lack of confidence exists because:

  • They were scared their honesty would affect their job in some way
  • They didn’t feel they would be listened to
  • They didn’t feel they would get support

If you had concerns about someone’s mental health or if someone was honest enough to open up to you would you know how to handle that conversation confidently? It can feel daunting, you’re worried you’ll make someone feel worse but it’s more likely the individual will feel relieved that you showed that you cared.

12 Top Tips to Help You Have Conversations about Mental Health 

CREATE the right environment – grab a drink and head somewhere quiet and free of distractions.  If you’re chatting online the same ‘no distractions’ rules apply.  Check that it’s a good time for them too.

ASK TWICE – ‘how are you? will normally be met by the standard “I’m fine” so be prepared to ask at least twice and follow up with something along the lines of “I’ve noticed you haven’t seemed yourself lately, is there anything you want to talk about?”.

LISTEN – I don’t mean hear the words as you plan your opening line to ask for the latest project update.  I mean really listen without interrupting.

BE OPEN – with your body language and consider cultural differences (e.g. appropriate levels of eye contact).  Look for clues in body language about how they’re really feeling.

SHOW EMPATHY and be NON-JUDGMENTAL – try to put yourself in their shoes.

ASSUMPTIONS can be easily made but you shouldn’t try to guess what symptoms someone might have and how these might affect their ability to function and do their job.  Many people are able to manage their mental health and work to a high standard.  They may require support measures when experiencing a difficult period.  Your perspective might be useful, but try not to assume that you already know what may have caused their feelings, or what will help.

ASK QUESTIONS  – How are you feeling at the moment? How long have you been feeling like this? Are there any factors at work/home that are contributing? Have you visited your GP? If so what did they recommend? What can we do to help?  Keep the focus on feelings.

SILENCE is golden – but can feel awkward for you as the listener. Get comfortable with silence and try to avoid filling the gaps with another question and allow your colleague time to think and respond.

OFFER SUPPORT – practical and emotional, not glib platitudes.  Let them know about any company support services such as your Employee Assistance Programme or Occupational Health department if you have them.  Remind them to visit their own GP if they haven’t already and suggest other avenues of support such as MindSamaritans or Shout.

FOLLOW UP ON ANY ACTIONS and keep the conversations going – check in at an appropriate point in the future to see how they’re doing.

CONFIDENTIALITY is vital – for creating and maintaining trust.  Only share information with the express permission of the individual.  If you believe the person is at risk of harm to themselves or others you should seek professional medical help and support for the individual with their knowledge.

KEEP YOURSELF SAFE – it’s important to maintain strong boundaries and not take on the problems of others.  Reflect on what you need to take care of yourself.

The Thrive Team offer a range of training and awareness sessions for managers and staff to help you have conversations about mental health and build awareness and confidence in workplace mental health issues. These include accredited Mental Health First Aid (now available online), Mental Health First Aid Champions, Mental Health First Aid Awareness and Mental Health First Aid Refresher courses.

To register for our (online) Mental Health First Aid course commencing 20 July follow this link.

If you would like any further information on how to have conversations about Mental Health or any of the training that the Thrive Team offer, check out their website, or feel free to contact them at [email protected]

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