Initiating a conversation about mental health in the workplace

two colleagues having informal discussionA friend working in HR  asked me recently how I go about initiating a  conversation with a person about their mental health in the workplace. My friend said how difficult it is too find a balance between trying to help and engage, with the possibly of upsetting the individual or over stepping the boundary.

I answered that I believe there is no one-off opening line. Just like there is no one-liner pretext to dating that actually works. It’s the expression of interest in the person. Taking the time to talk, rather than just paying lip service and sticking strictly to the rules. If you are genuinely interested in that person this starts at the beginning of their employment. There is a relationship you cultivate over time. This makes the starting of any potentially difficult conversation natural.

This is why I find it so hard when people ask for a quick fix on how do you open a conversation on this? If we are having to think about it in this way, then it’s probably because we have not engaged with the individual earlier.

Work to develop open channels of conversation

What becomes evident to me, is the culture and environment of the work place. The work to develop open channels of conversation should begin the day the employee starts. Conversation and acceptance is the key. The ability to offload without concern of judgement or prejudice is essential.

Research illustrates my friend is not alone in the workplace. I found Professor Sir Cary Coopers talk on presenteeism which I would highly recommend, is very relevant. He says; “Stress related absence is high in most EU countries. The challenge is to create good places to work. Where people are managed by praise and reward and not fault-finding and word overload. Where they are trusted to work more flexibly and where they have better balance in their lives.”

Senior Policy Adviser Employment Relations at CIPD Rachel Suff, in a 2016 CIPD article  reported; “One in five (20%) reported that their organisation does not support very well or not at all, employees experiencing mental health problems. Public and voluntary sector organisations are far more likely to support employees who experience mental health problems according to our respondents.”

The survey also reports; “That well under half (44%) of employees would feel confident disclosing unmanageable stress or mental health problems to their current employer or manager.”

A professional, independent ear that can provide neutral mental health support in the workplace

The interesting theme for me is the identification of the importance of mental health in the work place. In particular, the importance of employers in the process of supporting those they employ. This is increasingly my role in organisations and businesses. I am the professional, independent ear that can provide neutral mental health support. Just my presence in the building or at the end of a phone, illustrates to employees that the organisation is taking their mental health seriously. Even, if they don’t have the need to use my services at that point in time. It promotes a culture and ethos change over time that breaks down the barriers to conversations on mental health.

So, if I need to develop a one-liner, this is it. “Develop an employment culture with open lines of communication. And, actively demonstrate you are genuinely interested in your people and you value their mental wellbeing.”

You will find the problem of opening an ‘awkward conversation’ disappears along with the stigma attached to it.

Craig Fearn, MEd BSc Hons PGCE QTLS EMCC (Professional)

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