Anxiety, depression, and substance abuse are the three most common mental health conditions that people experience. With an estimated 1 in 6 people of Australia´s working population experiencing a mental illness at any one point in time, it is highly likely that at some point in your career you will employ or work with someone who has a mental health condition.
One of the most positive and powerful actions you can take as a manager when someone is struggling with a mental health condition is to have a supportive conversation about their mental health with them.
The conversations you have about someone’s mental health may be initiated by you or by someone seeking support from you. Either way, having a conversation about mental health in the workplace can seem daunting. It can be difficult to know what the “right thing to do” is. This can often mean that the conversation is avoided altogether. However, as a manager, you have a moral and legal obligation to support employees who may be struggling with their mental health. Providing the opportunity for a direct and caring conversation encourages people to seek the support they need, helps organisations provide that support, and openly reduces stigma associated with mental health conditions in the workplace.
When having a conversation with someone about their mental health at work, it is important to remember your personal boundaries, capabilities, and responsibilities as a manager. A few things to keep in mind are:
- For a range of reasons which may include the quality or nature of your relationship with the person or your capability, you may not be the right person to have the conversation. In this case, your action will be to engage another leader, colleague, human resource or workplace health and safety personnel to have the conversation.
- It is not your role to diagnose a mental health condition or provide counselling. Your role is to listen and understand, demonstrate genuine care and concern, direct a person to support services, apply relevant workplace legislation and your organisation’s policy and procedures, and to maintain a psychologically healthy and safe work environment.
- Remember your privacy obligations – you can only ask questions about a mental health condition in the workplace to the extent that it is for a legitimate purpose (e.g., to implement reasonable workplace adjustments or comply with health and safety regulations) and this information cannot be adversely used. The exceptions to these privacy obligations, which requires a reasonable assessment of the specific circumstances of an employee, are when disclosure will prevent or minimise an immediate threat to the individual or someone else, or if the disclosure is authorised by law.
So, how do you have an effective conversation with someone about mental health at work? First, remember not to worry about saying the wrong thing or getting the conversation perfect. You are making a positive difference just by having the conversation.
The below is a suggested approach that will help you engage in an effective workplace mental health conversation.
1. Get ready for the conversation
- Maintain a proficient level of mental health condition knowledge and skills to feel comfortable that you are ready to engage in a conversation when required.
- Ensure you are aware of your organisation’s relevant HR policies and mental health support processes available.
- Ensure the conversation is being held in a location that supports the privacy of the person and allows for adequate time. For conversations initiated by others, this may require a suggestion to change location or clearing your schedule.
2. Start the conversation
It is important to initiate or respond to a conversation in a calm and non-judgemental fashion. When in doubt – focus on listening. Here are a few opening statements below that will help you get off to a positive start:
- “Thanks for your time Mathew. I’ve noticed you have not been your usual self lately. I just wanted to check in that you are okay?”
- “I am glad we could meet up Sarah. I hope it is okay to check-in with you. It is just that I have noticed a few things about you lately that made me just want to touch base, see how you are going, and if there is anything I can do to help. Is that okay with you?”
- “Thanks for reaching out to me Alistair to let me know that things are rough for you right now. I can definitely help. Let’s talk more about what’s going on for you. “
3. Ask effective questions
- The focus here is on listening and asking effective questions to help you to get a thorough understanding of the situation and encourage the other person to self-reflect.
- Good basic listening skills are about:
– Not interrupting
– Regular eye contact and general focus on the individual
– Demonstrating “minimal responding” to indicate understanding which are things like nodding your head, and saying things like “I see”; “I understand”; “Really”.
- Examples of effective questions are:
– “Can you help me understand your perspective on this?”
– “How do you feel your work is impacted by this?”
– “What support would you like from me and the organisation?”
4. Identify the next steps
- Once all of the issues have been explored, it is important to respond by identifying the next steps. This is best done through exploring options with the individual and coming to an agreement together.
- Options to most helpfully respond to an individual who presents with a mental health condition may include:
– Providing a period of leave
– Referral to additional support such as your Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
– Implementing some practical workplace adjustments
The above is just one approach on how you can engage in a conversation that is effective in supporting someone with a mental health condition at work. Remember that you don’t need to get the conversation perfect or worry about saying the wrong thing. Just by having the courage to have the conversation you will be making a positive difference.
What if my team member doesn´t want to talk to me?
Just because you want to reach out to someone, it doesn’t mean your support is wanted. If this happens, just let them know you don’t want to intrude on their personal life – only that you want to see if you can provide any support, that you are available if they need you, and provide information to link them to EAP or other support services available.
What if my team member won’t get help or accept the support offered?
Whilst you can encourage someone to get help, direct them to resources and provide practical workplace adjustments, it is always an individual’s choice as to the extent they utilise that support. If a team member does not want to engage in any type of support it can be helpful to let them know that the support is there for them whenever they are ready and ask if it is okay to check in with them in a week or so.
How should I respond if my team member becomes upset?
Talking about mental health conditions can be very distressing. If the person becomes upset or very angry, it is best to acknowledge the emotion as you see it and ask how the person would like to proceed. They may feel embarrassed for getting emotional or just feel completely overwhelmed. For example, they may want to be alone for a while, have a glass of water, or take some deep breaths. Let them know it is okay for them to be upset, to take their time and that you are ready when they are to keep talking.
What do I do if my team member becomes suicidal?
Remain calm and explore the individual’s suicide intention directly and non-judgementally. Listen and take all the time it needs. Gain a commitment from them to seek support and provide the details to link them to appropriate services. If you feel someone is of an imminent threat to themselves because a clear intent and plan have been indicated, call Emergency Services on 000. Finally, ensure you look after yourself and debrief with someone afterwards.
If you or someone you know needs help contact your organisation´s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), your GP or call LifeLine on 13 11 14; Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800; MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978; Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.
Disclaimer: The information provided in this document is not intended to be legal advice and should not be interpreted as such. Managers and businesses should seek appropriate counsel from relevant HR and legal personnel if they do not feel they have the applied knowledge for lawfully managing mental health issues in the workplace. In addition to the information provided, it is important to be fully aware of all relevant legislations and the requirements in your specific state or territory and your organisations applicable policies and procedures.