Insight Engagement and wellbeing Team management

How to have a mental health conversation with your staff

Do you think one of your employees might be experiencing a mental health issue? While there’s no one single way to have a conversation with them about it, being able to have the conversation begins with connection.

We spoke to Janet Mcleod, Organisational Psychologist and founder of the Conscious Leadership Project, to get her expert advice on how to prepare for such conversations and provide the best support possible for your team.

Janet Mcleod, Conscious Leadership Project

Part 1: Preparing for the conversation

As a leader, having tough conversations is simply part of the job, whether it’s a mental health issue, a professional issue, or a personal issue. “There are three key things to think about when preparing to have such a conversation,” Janet says:

  1. Position
  2. Purpose
  3. Person

1. Position: Positioning the conversation into the context of their working day

Leaders need to be continually focused on contributing to a culture of psychological safety so that when you see a need or opportunity to have a sensitive conversation, you’ve already set yourself up for it, Janet says.

“A mental health conversation is best positioned in a culture of trust and psychological safety. If you have invested in developing trusted relationships, you are then able to leverage this when engaging in sensitive, uncomfortable or risky conversations.”

“When having your regular one-on-ones with your employees, carve out time to ask how they’re doing in a personal, broader sense. With that rapport being built, a mental health check-in can then be positioned into the 1:1; it will fit with this context.”

Check-in with your staff on a personal level at the start of your next 1:1.

FREE Download: Manager 1:1 check-in template

2. Purpose: Why are you having the conversation? What do you want to achieve?

Before you book the meeting or have the conversation, Janet recommends thinking carefully about why you’re having it, what your goals are, what the employee’s goals might be, and how you see it playing out.

“Ensure you have clarity on what prompted your desire or need to have the mental health conversation. What behaviors did you observe? What changes have you noticed? It is important to share why you are having this conversation, what you have observed and then allow space to discuss this with the employee.”

For example, you might have some of the following goals as a leader:

  • Connect and build trust with the employee.
  • Be present, authentic, empathic and offer support.
  • Check in to see if they’re okay.
  • Connect them to resources or additional support.

Consider also what the employee might want to get out of it? For example, they will want to be heard and supported. Do they also want to be connected to resources or understand what the organization has to offer? This will help to ensure you are prepared with all of the information and tools you might need, and if you realize you don’t know something you can find out before you speak with them.

When having your regular one-on-ones with your employees, carve out time to ask how they’re doing in a personal, broader sense. With that rapport being built, a mental health check-in can then be positioned into the 1:1; it will fit with this context.

3. Person: How might this impact the person? How might they react? Am I prepared?

Putting all of these pieces together, Janet highlights the importance of taking a person-centered approach to the conversation.

“Think about the person in front of you,” she says. “How might this conversation impact them? How might they react? How well are you prepared to manage this?”

It is also important to consider your own tendencies, discomforts and triggers, so you can prepare for this also.

“We want to facilitate these conversations from a place of trust. This comes from you having a relationship, that you actually know each other,” Janet says.

“When I’m coaching a leader and I get a lot of ‘I don’t knows’ when I ask questions about the employee, how might they react to you having this conversation with them?, then this indicates that there’s a lack of relationship, which makes this dialogue a lot more challenging and risky.”

You also need to consider yourself, your own leadership capabilities and emotional intelligence, i.e.

  • How aware am I being as a leader?
  • How well am I self-regulating so I can make good decisions in the moment?
  • How well am I showing empathy?

Not everyone has strong emotional intelligence. However, it’s something that you can learn and as a leader it’s a capacity you should look to continually develop, especially for managing virtual teams.

Part 2: Having the conversation

Once you’re ready to have the conversation (or ready enough), there are several key things to consider and be aware of.

Confidentiality

“In order to build trust, there needs to be confidentiality in the manager-employee relationship,” Janet says.

“When you’re having a sensitive conversation, establishing or reiterating confidentiality will help the employee open up; it establishes an agreement.”

“If they are experiencing mental health issues or challenges, they may be worried about the risks to how they are perceived, including their brand and career prospects. The mental health stigma in organizations is real.”

Depending on the context of the conversation, whether it’s a one-off or part of your regular 1:1, Janet suggests establishing confidentiality right at the start, for example:

  • “I want you to know that this is all confidential.”
  • “I’m keen to hear how you’re going and I’m here to listen. Of course everything you say is confidential.”

But what if you’re concerned about your employee’s safety and think you need to share some information elsewhere? “That’s a conversation that needs to be had with the employee to involve them and seek their consent if possible,” Janet says. “You could say something like ‘My role is to keep you and the team safe and I’d like to bring in HR for that extra level of support, are you comfortable with that?’”

Involving the employee in how HR is brought into the equation helps to maintain trust and connection which is central to addressing the risks.

When to bring it up

Don’t avoid or delay conversations, Janet says. The best time to bring something up is as soon as possible.

“Ensure that you set up conditions for safety, trust and autonomy so that the person has the right to say no if they don’t want to talk. Think about your timing as well; don’t do it before you’re about to go on leave and will be uncontactable, or before an important meeting that they are a part of.”

How to bring it up

There are three parts to bringing up the topic of conversation, Janet says:

  1. Set the context and intention: “Let your employee know why you’re asking questions, including what you have observed in their behavior. Also, add what you want to achieve from the conversation. Then stop and listen. We have a natural tendency to move away from discomfort and what this can look like in a conversation is filling in the empty space in the conversation. Pauses are good – they allow for understanding and connection. It is important to resist this urge (see tips on listening with empathy below). Also, ask them what they want to get out of it. Setting the context and intention provides a sense of certainty, safety and alignment around what’s happening.”
  2. Leverage your relationship: “Use your personality, connection and rapport to facilitate the conversation. If you feel you don’t have a close relationship with the individual, situations like this can have the effect of building better relationships simply by letting someone know you care. Even though it may be serious, you don’t need to devoid yourself of warmth or personality.”
  3. Gain agreement: It’s important to ask the employee if they want to proceed with the conversation because this makes the choice to enter into the conversation theirs and gives them the autonomy to say no.”

Conversation starters

Use these easy statements to start a mental health conversation with a team member.

  • “I have noticed (insert behavior) and wanted to check in to see if everything was OK.”
  • “Before we start jumping in to talk about the work, I want to take some time to step back and talk about (insert topic), is this okay?”
  • “There’s so much activity/change going on, it’s been a while since we’ve chatted. Can we chat a bit about how things are going generally for you?”
  • “It would be great to hear how things are going for you and how I can best offer you support through what is a difficult period of change and adjustment. Does that sound okay to you?”
  • “Hey before we get to the agenda let’s check in. Are you okay with that?”

 

If the conversation is part of your regular 1:1 where you ask how they’re doing, then it will make this easier, but if you don’t usually check-in, then you can blend the conversation into a WIP or other meeting (unless there’s urgency).

Janet also emphasizes to be prepared if your employee doesn’t agree to have the conversation.

“If they say no, you could say ‘That’s okay, just know that my intention is to check in, that I’m here when or if you’re ready. PAUSE and then say “should we go back to what we had planned for the agenda? Does that feel okay for you?’”

You don’t need to solve everything in a single conversation! The first is to open the door and start building trust, and can be one of many conversations!

Listen with empathy

If you’re asking the questions, make sure you’re listening actively to the answers to the answers.

“All too often, particularly when leaders feel uncomfortable, we forget to listen to what the person is actually saying, which means we miss out on important data,” Janet says.

“If you’re not actively listening, and instead thinking about what you’re going to say or ask next, the employee will notice. This will erode safety and trust.”

“Many managers will rush to try to fill the silence or space, but you need to sit in the discomfort and trust that you can press pause. Take a moment to process or wait to see if they have more to say, and then think about how to respond.”

Listening with empathy involves:

  • Being flexible, open and present.
  • Being with someone, taking their perspective.
  • Being curious without judging.
  • Recognizing what might be coming up in that person.
  • Showing that you hear and understand them, i.e. by paraphrasing or asking questions.

Responding

If your employee tells you they are experiencing a problem, here’s how to respond:

  • Show empathy – see above.
  • Don’t make assumptions.
  • (Re)set your intention.
  • Provide options.

Don’t make assumptions

It’s almost impossible to stop our minds judging and making assumptions so be aware of this and use a strategy to minimize their impact. Janet advises taking a curious approach and asking questions to clarify, even if you think you already know.

“Saying ‘that must be really hard for you’ makes an assumption and limits the opportunity for your employee to share how they are actually feeling.”

As an alternative, you could say ‘that sounds really difficult, how are you going with it?’. This focuses on the situation and opens up the door for them to share their personal experience. Sometimes people simply need some space to connect so don’t be afraid of silence and use simple prompts when someone does open up to keep things going such as ‘go on’, tell me more, etc.”

(Re)set your intention

Reiterate your role and your intention: ask what they need or what you can do to help them,” Janet says.

“A leader’s role in this situation is to open up the conversation, give it enough structure and hold space so that the employee has the opportunity to open up and the autonomy to make decisions.”

For example: “How are you going with that? I’m here to support you. What can I do to help you?”

Provide options

“It can help when you ask your employee what they need, to provide some concrete options to choose from,” Janet says.

For example:

  • Would you like to take some time off?
  • Would greater flexibility in your start and finish times help?
  • Shall we look at your workload and reprioritise your commitments?
  • Are there some tasks that you particularly enjoy and want to do more of?

Then ask: How do these options sound to you? Are there other ideas that we might explore together?

“Giving options also helps to normalize what’s happening,” Janet says. “If you’re experiencing a mental health concern we often feel like we’re the only ones, that we’re letting others down. But giving options helps them see that it’s reasonable and you [the leader] have been here before.”

“Despite your best intentions, be aware that you may not be the best person to support someone in the workplace. Your role may be to connect them to someone else.”

Connect to resources

Once you’ve determined what the employee needs, then you can outline the next steps and connect them with appropriate resources, whether that’s the EAP, internal resources or a health professional.

Janet says to be conscious that the word “psychologist” is often stigmatized and can be scary, so it’s better to say “Have you spoken to a GP or health professional?”, or “do you have a good GP?’.”

Build the employee’s sense of resourcefulness

When we feel stressed we can have tunnel vision. We may not see or recall our available resources and strengths, the experiences we’ve been through in the past and what support is available.

“The role of the leader is to broaden the employee’s perspective so they can see the bigger picture, see their resilience and reflect and draw on past experiences,” Janet says.

An example of how to do this: “Think about what you’ve been through over the last year with COVID and all that you’ve achieved. What are the things you’ve been through that you’re most proud of and how can you use that to help you through this current challenge?”

Agree on next steps

It’s important to get agreement. Say “do you agree that you’ll reach out to your friend for support tonight? Is it okay if I check in with you tomorrow and ask how that went?”, Janet says.

“This not only builds the employee’s motivation to take action and supports them with their accountability, but it gives you another opportunity to check in with them, offer support and carry on the conversation.”

A note on Employee Assistance Programs (EAP)

EAPs are sometimes used by leaders as a next step for those experiencing issues, and while an EAP is a fantastic resource, it can also be intimidating and unfamiliar for employees.

Call the EAP yourself to get first-hand experience in how it works. Saying to your employee “If you call this number you’ll go through to a call centre and they’ll give you a recommendation about who to talk to, which might take 2 or 3 days but then you’ll have a conversation with a psychologist”, will not only reduce uncertainty, but will increase psychological safety because you’re showing vulnerability in having called the EAP too.

Part 3: Follow up

Once you’ve outlined and agreed on the employee’s next steps, be clear on what your next steps are too, and follow through on them, Janet says.

“If you’ve said that you’ll connect them with a resource, make sure you send the info quickly. If you’ve said you’ll call them the next day, call them. If you need to set a reminder in your calendar, do so to ensure you follow through on the commitment.”

Even when the issue is “solved”, it’s still important to check-in regularly. Scheduling regular wellness pulses through your HR software (like intelliHR!) can take the stress out of trying to remember, and can help inform and structure your 1:1 conversations when you do have them.


intelliHR is a people management platform helping HR, leaders and managers enhance performance, culture, engagement and retention. With built-in HRIS and powerful real-time analytics, see how the platform works today.

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