6 ways to talk about emotional wellbeing with employees

As a manager, it can be difficult to know how to approach conversations about emotional distress. Here are six key steps to help staff move from barely surviving, back to thriving

CREDIT: This story was first seen in Nuffield Health

Set the right tone
Make sure that the workplace is an environment which encourages people to come forward and talk about mental health problems. Talk about mental illness in a respectful, non-judgemental, clear and understandable way and don’t use disrespectful language, such as describing individuals as ‘playing the stress card’, or stating that someone is ‘mental’. This language doesn’t encourage a positive environment to talk about mental health.

Keep it simple
Remember you are not there to provide therapy. Your role is not to spot cases of depression or anxiety in the workplace, or to diagnose, but to notice changes in your staff and when they are distressed. If you recognise changes, you can then try to find out more and suggest the right support that will help them.

As you are not a therapist, it’s ok to admit that you don’t know much about a condition or diagnosis; in many ways this is better, as it will make sure you ask sincere questions about how the problem affects them and what they think the implications are for their work. You’re there to listen and signpost to support, so make sure you are fully aware of all your mental health policies and procedures and the support you have in place in the workplace.

Always double-check if they have contacted their GP for advice – you’d be surprised how many people don’t associate difficulties with their mood with their GP. It’s also a good idea to have a contact list of outside agencies like Samaritans or Mind, for example.

Notice and really listen
Don’t set out to spot depression or anxiety in your employees, but do remain vigilant for changes in the way an employee is at work – for example, an employee who was always punctual and smart who starts being late every day and appears dishevelled, or a previously popular, relaxed and productive employee who is less productive and sits on their own at lunch.

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Once you become aware of a change that might indicate distress, make sure you book in time with the employee in a confidential space. Try beginning the conversation by letting the person know you have noticed that they aren’t their usual self. Try not to make assumptions about what that person is experiencing. If you avoid making assumptions, you ask better questions – those how, what, where, when questions – and, by asking better questions, you show that you are actually interested in them and have really listened.

Show interest
When you’re asking questions, make sure these are open questions of interest which encourage positive conversation or actions, such as:

  • What has been happening to you?
  • How has it affected you?
  • What sense did you make of it?
  • What has been helpful to you in coping?
  • Have you asked anyone for support or talked to anyone else about this?
  • What kind of support do you think might help?
  • What would you like to happen now?

Provide meaningful adjustments
Providing meaningful adjustments continues that theme of really listening – the employer is hearing the difficulties the employee has had in the workplace and is providing support.

Understand ‘reasonable adjustments’
A ‘reasonable adjustment’ is a change or adjustment unique to a person’s needs that will enable them to do their job; the term ‘reasonable’ just means effective for the employee without being too disruptive, costly or impractical for the employer. Possible adjustments could include:

  • Support with workload – providing increased frequency of supervision and support from others.
  • Physical environment – providing a quiet space to complete reports, or allowing the individual the option of leaving a public space for a private one if distressed.
  • Working hours or patterns – allowing someone with low mood and disturbed sleep to start and finish later in the day.

Be aware that employees may be concerned about raising these because ‘reasonable adjustments’ are linked to employment law –a person is eligible for adjustments termed ‘reasonable’ if they are legally defined as disabled by the Disability Act 2010.

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