“Oh, I’m not good at that sort of thing.”
“I’d probably just say something to make it worse.”
“If I brought it up things would get really awkward at work.”
There are plenty of “reasons” to avoid having difficult conversations about mental health in the workplace. Have you ever had the feeling that someone you work with is a little “off”? You’ve enjoyed a great working relationship with Suzanne for fifteen years and lately she just doesn’t seem like herself. Normally a very conscientious employee, you’ve noticed Suzanne isn’t putting as much gusto into her work tasks. Maybe she’s been coming in late, which isn’t like her. The last few conversations you’ve had with Suzanne she’s seemed distracted and hasn’t been as chatty as usual.
“She’s probably just having an ‘off day’,” you reasoned. “There’s no point in me getting involved.”
It’s true, we all have good days and bad days and everywhere in between… But maybe it’s more than that.
“Suzanne and I have worked together for a long time,” you assured yourself. “If she wanted my help I’m sure she’d ask.”
When someone’s struggling with their mental health, they may not know where they can turn for help. Largely because of stigma many people don’t feel safe asking for help when they know they need a hand – especially in the workplace – for fear of prejudice and discrimination.
So, what should you do?
With a few simple steps we can help Suzanne to feel supported by presenting her with a safe space to get her struggles off her chest if she so chooses, and to understand the resources available to her at work:
Use open-ended questions to let Suzanne know you’re there as a sounding board. Talking about mental health isn’t easy if it’s not a topic you regularly discuss, but over time you’ll get more at ease with these conversations. As a support person, remember that you set the tone: if you’re visibly nervous and uncomfortable it communicates to Suzanne that this is an awkward topic, or may make her feel like her struggle is something to feel embarrassed about or ashamed of. Fake it till you make it! If your approach is gentle, open, warm and relaxed, it may do a lot to help Suzanne feel like she can open up.
2. Work Together
Chat with Suzanne about your organization’s EFAP (Employee & Family Assistance Program). Maybe Suzanne doesn’t know much about the program, or maybe she’s considered using it but is nervous to take that next step. Offering to make the call with Suzanne might help. Reassure her that if she doesn’t feel ready in the moment she can check out some information on the provider’s website as a way of dipping her toe in the water. Not sure whether you have one or exactly what it is? Do a bit of prep work by asking your HR representative to fill you in on the program your workplace offers before sitting down with Suzanne.
3. Follow Up
In the aftermath of this conversation Suzanne may feel vulnerable, embarrassed about having asked for help, questioning whether she over-shared… Again, you as the helper can set the tone here. Don’t let your own uncertainties lead you to act like the conversation never happened next time you see Suzanne at work. Instead make a point of touching base with her soon after. You might say something along the lines of, “It’s great to see you! I’ve been thinking about you since our chat the other day. How are things going?” Let Suzanne know you’re there to help on an as-needed basis.
If you recognize signs that someone could be struggling with their mental health, don’t talk yourself out of initiating that conversation. You don’t have to be a therapist or solve all of the person’s problems. You don’t need to have all the answers. Just being there to listen and let a co-worker like Suzanne know there are places and people she can turn to for help can make a huge difference.
Stay well! See you next time.
Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to frequent keynote speaking and corporate training on 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.