Employers are often hesitant to start a conversation about mental health, for fear of causing offense, compromising the working relationship or not wanting to get involved. Workers may likewise be reluctant to disclose mental health issues for fear of stigmatisation or differential treatment in the workplace.
Starting a mental health conversation is hard … but studies have shown that asking “R U OK?” could literally save a life. Invite us to your offices to teach you how with our Mental Health Awareness training, or read on for some insights on how to get started:
Tip 1: Plan Ahead
Prior to starting a discussion, think about the purpose of the conversation and how best you might express your concerns. It may help to prepare any information that you may need during the conversation, such as reviewing relevant policies and procedures and finding out about support services both within and outside of the workplace.
When thinking about holding a mental health discussion, it is also important to consider
* Location – Find a space that is quiet, private, and informal, where both you and your colleague will feel comfortable.
* Person – Consider the best person to have the conversation with the employee. This person may or may not be you, depending on your role and relationship to the employee.
* Time – Find a time that best suits you and your staff member, so that neither of you will need to run off or put time pressure on the conversation.
Tip 2: Start a Conversation
Initiate the conversation by explaining why you are meeting with them. Remain calm and open-minded, but don’t be afraid to make observations about specific changes in their behaviour – such as lateness, mood, appearance, or performance – which may be due to a mental health issue. Ask open-ended questions and be patient. Be careful not to try to diagnose the person or act like a counsellor; simply express your concern and explain why.
Early in the conversation, reassure the person that you respect their privacy and will keep their confidence (except in circumstances where there may be an imminent threat to the safety of the worker in question, or a third party).
As the conversation continues, you may find it useful to:
* Listen carefully and actively. Repeating your understanding of what they have said can help the person feel heard, and make sure your understanding is accurate.
* Be empathetic, but maintain professional boundaries.
* Reassure the worker. Recognise that disclosure of mental health issues is a huge step forward, and reassure the employee of their value to the organisation.
* Prepare for possible responses. It is not uncommon for people to feel threatened by attempts to discuss their personal issues. Be prepared for the possibility that the employee will respond with anger or complete denial.
Non-verbal communication can also be very expressive. For this reason, it is important to be particularly aware of the messages being delivered by body language, especially when discussing sensitive issues. Try to avoid sitting with your arms or legs crossed, as this could come across as hostile or disinterested. Instead, show that the employee has your full attention by facing in their direction and bending slightly forward (whilst respecting personal space). It is also helpful to have no barriers between yourself and the employee (such as a desk).
Tip 3: Offer Real Support and Encourage an Active Response
- Ask about any reasonable adjustments that could be made to assist the worker. These could include flexible hours and responsibilities, time off for appointments, and/or regular rest breaks.
- Encourage them to talk to a family member or close friend about their issues
- Suggest professional support. If your organisation has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), offer your support to help access it. A visit to the GP is also a good place to start.
- Refer to any external services that may be helpful, such as Beyond Blue or Lifeline.
- If they choose not to seek assistance, let them know you are available if they should need assistance in the future.
Tip 4: Follow Up
Make a plan to check in a few days later, and review any adjustments that you and the worker agreed upon. Continue to monitor and provide feedback on the worker’s wellbeing and performance.
Your efforts could save a life
Employers have a legal obligation to provide a mentally safe and healthy workplace for their employees. Early intervention efforts to minimise risk of mental illness include identifying when a staff member may be struggling (e.g. deteriorating performance, absenteeism, or noticeable changes in mood) and offering appropriate support. Learn more about how to have a mental health conversation with our Mental Health Awareness training, or check out the resources available on the RUOK? website