Most employees – a striking nine in every ten of us – have either experienced a mental health challenge ourselves or known someone in that situation. This finding comes from a new study by Accenture that demonstrates just how common mental health issues really are for today’s workforce.1
And yet despite this, only one in two people who experience mental health problems will let their manager know.2 We can improve this situation by providing our teams with the right support, and helping them to feel that they can open up. All of us can make a difference, both by looking out for our colleagues and by taking care of ourselves.
The thought of talking to a direct report about their mental health might feel daunting; especially if you are worried about saying the wrong thing. In this article, you’ll find useful prompts and tips that will hopefully help you feel confident approaching the conversation.
Knowing when to check in
How do you know that someone you manage may be struggling with their mental health at work? This often won’t be obvious, but you might pick up on certain changes. For example, they may seem irritable or as though they’re lacking confidence. Other signs could include their performance declining suddenly without any obvious explanation, or them generally acting out of character.3,4
These changes don’t necessarily mean there’s an underlying mental health problem. But whether there is or not, you should consider checking in with your colleague about how they are doing.
Preparing for the conversation
Think about where it might work best to have the conversation. Can you meet face-to-face? This is always ideal for sensitive discussions. If that’s not possible, could you see whether a colleague who works in the same location could check in initially? Don’t forget to put your mobile phone to one side too. Even a vibrating phone, or a quick glance to check your phone screen, can break the flow of a conversation.
Another important aspect of preparing for the conversation is to refresh your knowledge of any internal HR policies relevant to mental health, and the support that’s available to employees. This will help you to be really clear on how you can help, if it’s clear from the discussion that the employee would benefit from support. You may also want to speak to HR before the conversation for some guidance.
Starting the conversation
Something as simple as ‘How are you?’ is a good place to begin.
Choose honest and open questions rather than avoiding the issue completely or referring to it indirectly. This is especially useful if there’s a particular issue to address, such as under-performance or absence. Here are some examples.
- You seem a bit down lately. Is everything OK?
- I’ve noticed you’ve been late with a few pieces of work recently. I wanted to check whether everything is OK and if there is anything I can do to help?
- I saw you were quite upset yesterday [when you were talking to…], [on the phone]. Is everything OK?
- I’ve noticed that you’ve had more days off than usual recently – I just wanted to check in to make sure everything was ok and whether there was anything I could do to help?
Keeping the conversation going
The way you listen and respond could affect how much your colleague tells you and how comfortable they feel about further disclosure. These tips could help.
- Ask simple, open questions – let them explain in their own words. Give them time and be prepared for some silences.
- Don’t interrupt or impose your opinions or ideas.
- Show empathy and understanding. Don’t make assumptions about what they’re experiencing or try and guess how it will affect their work.
- Remember that lots of people are still able to work effectively, despite managing a mental health problem.
- It’s OK to admit that you don’t know much about a condition or diagnosis. Ask questions about how it affects them and what they think the implications are, if any, for their work.
Example phrases and questions
- I’m really sorry to hear that things have been so hard.
- It sounds like you’ve been having a difficult time lately.
- I’m really pleased you’ve chosen to speak to me about this.
- How do you feel this has been affecting your work?
- Is there anything you do at the moment that helps you manage how you feel / your condition?
- 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?
If your colleague becomes upset
If your colleague is very upset, they might prefer to continue the discussion another time. Check what they need and whether they would like to take a break before going back to work.
- Would you like to talk about how we can help you now, or would you prefer to talk more another time?
- Are you feeling OK to return to work or would it help to have a break and a walk or a cup of tea? Would it help to ask someone to go with you?
Outlining support options
If you’re a line manager and talking to a direct report, you should check they are aware of support options. Make sure your own knowledge is up to date too.
- Have you had a look at our mental health and wellbeing policy? Would it help to talk it through so you can understand how we can help you?
- Have you been in touch with our Employee Assistance Programme?
- It’s common to feel like you have to handle things on your own – but it’s always OK to seek help. Have you spoken to your GP about how you are feeling?
More information from Bupa
We have more resources that can help you approach the conversation. Our article on talking about mental health problems and dealing with disclosure expands on the points raised on this page
We also have information that can help you to understand common mental health problems, and to think about how well your workplace is supporting mental health.
Find out what we’re doing at Bupa to get the conversation started #OpenUp.
1. Accenture. It's not 1 in 4; it's all of us: why mental health touches everyone. Published 2018. https://www.accenture.com/t00010101T000000Z__w__/gb-en/_acnmedia/PDF-90/Accenture-TCH-Its-All-of-Us-Research-Updated-Report.pdf (PDF, 7.5MB)
2. Mind. Survey of 44,000 employees, 2018.www.mind.org.uk/news-campaigns/news/half-of-workers-have-experienced-poor-mental-health-in-current-job/
3. ACAS. Managing staff experiencing mental ill health. http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=6064, accessed November 2018
4. Mental Health Foundation and UNUM. Managing mental health in the workplace. http://cdn2.hubspot.net/hubfs/234061/CR00233_Ebook_dualbranded_interactive-1.pdf?t=1463572266614 (PDF, 1.1MB), accessed November 2018