HR dos and don’ts for having a mental health chat

  • Occupational health
Kate Palmer FCIPD - Director of HR Advice and Consultancy at global employment law consultancy, Peninsula.

Kate Palmer, HR Advice and Consultancy Director

(Last updated )

You have an employee who’s been taking a lot of time off recently. Personal issues, they say. You don’t want to pry but when they are at work, they seem quiet, uninterested, and distant.

You’re pretty sure it’s not the aftermath of a big night out. You’ve spotted those signs before…

So, what’s going on?

You want to address the issue with your worker, but you’re worried about making the wrong move. If they mention mental health, what if you say the wrong thing? It’s your worst case scenario to upset them or create even more of a problem.

That’s why to honour Time to Talk Day, we’re giving you a HR expert’s take on the dos’ and don’ts of having a mental health chat at work…

Do: Be honest

First things first, if you’re concerned about something specific, be honest about it.

You might have an issue with how much time your worker is taking off, or you feel their performance is falling short of your expectations. Address this, but don’t accuse.

Your goal in this meeting is to be completely transparent and find the route of the issue, not to tell your worker off. So, stay as positive as possible. The reasons might be delicate, so it’s important to be sensitive and keep an open mind.

Don’t: Be dismissive

If your worker starts opening up about an issue, don’t say things like ‘you’ll be fine’, ‘calm down’, or ‘don’t worry’.

While you might be trying to them feel better, you might instead come across as dismissive. And if someone feels like you’re dismissing them, they’re probably not going to open up.

That’s why it’s better to ask open-ended questions like ‘how are you?’ and ‘how does this make you feel?’. This allows your worker to express how they feel in their own words.

Do: Create a plan

You want something to show for this chat. So, make it productive.

It’s a good idea to sit down with your worker and create an action plan. While you’re planning together, you should look at finding out:

  • signs of the worker’s mental health problem
  • how the mental health problem affects work
  • stress triggers
  • a person to contact

Once you’ve done that, you can start thinking about support.

Don’t: Offer solutions

Lots of people do it. They think support is offering specific solutions. ‘Well [x] worked for me so why not give that a go?’

This actually isn’t a good strategy because what works for you might not work for someone else. Plus, it’s best to leave that sort of advice to the mental health experts.

There’s no harm in sharing similar experiences if you feel that’s appropriate. It might even help your worker to open up if they feel you understand them. But the only solutions you should be offering are how to support them in the work environment.

Do: Offer support

It’s better to focus on the person rather than the problem.

Because there’s no one size fits all approach to mental health. Everyone’s unique. So, you’ll need to find what works for the individual.

It might be a case of offering flexible working, allowing your worker to take longer breaks, or setting up a quiet room for them if they ever need to take a minute.

Don’t: Put all the responsibility on them

Many people struggle to tell their own family and friends about a mental health issue, so imagine how intimidating it is to tell their boss or manager.

Your staff may not want to approach you about mental health problems. They might worry it will change your opinion of them and prevent them from getting promotions and other opportunities.

That’s why you need to create an open workplace where your staff feel safe to raise concerns. Being open about mental health, having policies, and making sure everyone knows they have someone they can talk to without judgement will help with this.

And while it’s ideal for your worker to approach you with their issue, sometimes you may have to make the first move. If you work closely with your staff, you’ll probably be the first to notice when something isn’t right.

And if you show your worker that you’re comfortable, your worker is going to feel more comfortable talking to you.

Do: Encourage them to seek help

Reaching out for help is difficult. But if they haven’t already done it, gently nudge your worker to speak to their GP or a medical professional.

Their GP might be able to refer them for free support through the NHS.

And if you have an employee assistance programme (EAP), make sure they know about that too. Through an EAP, your staff have access to free counselling and advice from third-party experts. They can give your staff the tools to help better themselves in work and in life.

Because ultimately, you shouldn’t be taking everything on yourself. If your worker needs support, guide them to the professionals.

Don’t: Be overly formal

Being overly formal in a conversation about mental health might actually make you seem less confident. Plus, it doesn’t make anyone feel very comfortable.

The best way to start a conversation is to just ask the question ‘how are you’? It’s the same as if you were asking about someone’s physical health.

Listen to your worker but don’t push them to share if they don’t want to give too much away. Let the conversation flow naturally and try to get a better understanding of the situation without applying pressure.

Do: Choose a private place

Make sure you have this chat in a private place. This might seem obvious, but many people might think that having this chat out in the open takes the pressure off.

You’re discussing sensitive information. So, have this conversation somewhere no one can hear. Also, reassure your worker that what they say is confidential.

You shouldn’t break trust by telling other staff without your worker’s consent. But some people in the workplace may have to know, like your HR team if you have one. So, make sure when it comes to sharing information, you agree with your worker on who in the workplace knows what’s going on.

Don’t: Promise to keep secrets

Yes, confidentiality is important. But this doesn’t mean you have to keep everything to yourself.

If your worker says something that concerns you, you shouldn’t promise not to tell anyone about it. If someone’s welfare is at risk, keeping this quiet could actually be dangerous.

You might want your worker to feel they can talk to you about anything but really, you should leave that to the mental health professionals.

Do: Support your staff with a wellbeing policy

If a worker approaches you or you approach a worker about a mental health issue, there’s less risk of making a wrong move when you have a clear wellbeing policy.

A wellbeing policy tells staff ahead of time how you handle mental health in your workplace. This might include details about:

  • creating an action plan to help your worker find ways to manage their mental health
  • providing an occupational health referral with your worker’s permission
  • external organisations that can help 
  • your employee assistance programme (EAP) If you have one

If you want to see what a wellbeing policy looks like, click below to download a free sample. And if you’re worried about a staff member or would like more information on how you can support mental health in your workplace, give us a call on 0800 029 4384 to get expert advice.

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