Talking about mental health

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Feb 02 2023 by Therese Procter Print This Article

When it comes to mental health issues in the workplace, it's important that managers know how to listen and respond to employees who open up about such a delicate matter. As much as it is time to talk, it is also time to listen.

What worries me is that recent research from the UK's Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has found that only 44% of line managers have received training to support people with ill mental health, despite them being the first port of call for employees.

In light of all this, I have put together a list of advice to ensure that those in managerial roles are best prepared to listen, understand and support their team members:

Create a safe space: mental health is a tentative subject, and one's environment can have a lot to do with whether someone feels comfortable enough to trust you and be honest with you. Using a private, quiet room will demonstrate that this time is solely dedicated to the person who is confiding in you. Taking notes is always recommended so that you can clarify and reflect after, but try your best to use eye contact as much as possible, as this will make the person feel that you are genuinely interested.

Set clear boundaries: you are not a qualified mental health professional, and so are not expected to have all the answers. Explain that you are there to listen and to guide as best you can.

Get comfortable with silence: these conversations can go in any direction, so it is so important for you to be patient. Silence usually signifies that someone is either finding the courage to say something or just trying to find the right words - it is your responsibility to be flexible to their time and needs.

Ask the right questions: sometimes it may be difficult for people to convey their issue clearly - they themselves may not even quite know what the root is. So, asking the right questions can help to keep the flow of the conversation. Open questions are always best, and these will typically start with what/when/where/why/who and how. Once you have discovered what their trigger/problem may be, you can then begin using encouraging questions to help guide them towards the best course of action while still allowing them to feel in control. For example, “How would you feel talking to a professional about this?” or “Who have you shared this with outside of me?”.

Notice the non-verbal: during your conversation, you may see noticeable changes in body language and facial expressions, especially when talking about certain topics. Take note of any potential triggers so that you can clarify these when appropriate.

Arrange a follow-up: making it clear to the employee that this was not a 'one and done' conversation is crucial for maintaining that rapport and trust. Set time aside to check in with them, or if you need to reflect on the information you have received and time to educate yourself around what the best course of action may be, then be open about this. Admitting you don't have all the answers is absolutely fine, but showing that you will make the effort to obtain them and feed this back is a great way of affirming that sense of genuineness.

The mental health crisis is growing each day. One in four people in England will experience a mental health problem within the year and one in five in the USA. That's why having up-to-date mental health training for your managers is so crucial. Creating this culture of openness and having the right provisions in place to support those struggling will lead to a happier, healthier workforce and a happier, healthier business.


About The Author

Therese Procter
Therese Procter

Formerly a Chief People Officer at a major UK retail bank, Therese Procter is now a Partner and Senior Consultant at OrgShakers, a global HR consultancy. She also sits on the boards of several organizations in financial services, technology and the not-for-profit sector.