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Conversation Navigation: 6 Concrete Ways to Discuss Mental Health at Work


Happy Wednesday, everyone! Working from home sure hasn’t changed how quickly a week seems to go by. I hope that wherever you are and whatever state of quarantine or gradual re-opening your community is going through, you’re finding joy and gratitude in each day.

As many workplaces in my home province (New Brunswick) are re-opening, the time feels right to explore the nitty-gritty of talking about mental health with employees who are stressed out and/or experiencing other mental health challenges. I’ve spoken to many people who described feeling excited and relieved, and looked forward to returning to a more normal work routine with great anticipation; then suddenly, like flipping a switch, were hit by a sense of overwhelm, apprehension and anxiousness. This experience is common, largely because there are so many unknowns about what the “new normal” will look like and the associated level of risk. Leaders must be patient, understanding and supportive during this process as everyone mentally adjusts. If you notice signs that someone might be having a particularly hard time, address it – don’t wait. So how exactly should you breach the subject? Read on for some specific tips on approaching an employee or co-worker who might be struggling.

1. “Is everything ok?”

This sounds vague, but it’s definitely a non-threatening way to start. Ideally, talking about mental health will feel as relaxed as a conversation about a head cold or a flu bug. Beginning with an open-ended question gives a person the space to disclose anything they wish to without the pressure of a more direct inquiry.

2. “I noticed ‘XYZ’ so I thought I’d check in.”

Citing observable behaviour may help to highlight that you’re genuinely worried, not judging. “I noticed you didn’t speak up in our last two staff meetings” is objective and specific, as opposed to “you’ve been quiet lately.” Do be sure it's clear that you're bringing it up out of concern for their wellbeing, not flagging a job performance issue.

3. “I know things are stressful right now.”

Acknowledge that things aren’t normal and validate the stress that, to some degree, just about every member of your workforce is feeling. Let your team know that there’s no right or wrong way to feel, that present circumstances are challenging and that you’re ready and willing to support them in whatever way you can.

4. “I’m worried about you.”

If someone’s not 100% at ease talking about mental health they may downplay it by making a joke or changing the subject. While being careful that the focus of conversation stays on that person (not you and your feelings), you can let them know the changes you’ve noticed in them are concerning and that you’re taking the situation seriously.

5. “Do you know about our EFAP?”

If a person doesn’t feel comfortable opening up to you, that’s ok. The important thing is making sure they have access to support. Whether a person’s sharing a lot or a little (or nothing at all) it never hurts to let them know about a credible resource or two. If your organization has an Employee and Family Assistance Program, be sure to pass along the details.

6. “Let me know if you ever want to talk.”

Reiterate that there’s no time limit on your offer to help the person, or even just to be their sounding board. A better approach than leaving the ball in their court is for you to make it a point to check in regularly and gently remind them of this.

Remember, these conversation starters are just that: starters. You may well have to gently revisit the topic more than once in order for a person to feel at ease enough to acknowledge they’re having a hard time or accept help. You might also find that in a single conversation you’re using multiple phrases from the above list, or even all of them. Like developing any other skill, it takes a bit of time and practice to feel completely comfortable having discussions like this. I promise you, the toughest thing is getting the conversation started. Your job is to open up the door and get the ball rolling, giving the person a safe space to share what’s going on. You might be surprised how much a person will open up if you set the tone by letting them know you’re not afraid to talk about mental health.

Take good care everyone, and thanks for reading!

#resilientemployees #thrivingworkplaces #employeewellness #conversationstarters

Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to keynote speaking and corporate training on workplace mental health she is the owner/operator of Arpeggio Health Services, Atlantic Canada’s largest provider of public mental health trainings. Learn more at elizabetheldridge.com, summitcorporatewellness.com and arpeggiohealthservices.com.

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