How to have good quality conversations about mental health at work

How to have good quality conversations about mental health at work

Posted by Amanda Furness


At some point in their lifetime, 1 in 3 of the UK workforce will have been formally diagnosed with a mental health condition and yet only around half of employees feel comfortable talking generally about mental health issues in the workplace.

In fact according to a 2017 poll by the charity Time to Change, of the 2025 workers surveyed, talking openly with their colleagues about mental health had the lowest ranking of the 10 subjects listed.  Only 13% felt they could talk openly with their colleagues about mental health.


Mental health stigma or lack of confidence?

These and other published statistics show that we can’t ignore that there is still an issue with stigma surrounding mental health in this country. Media coverage given to the subject in recent times is hopefully starting to break this down, albeit at too slow a pace.

However, linked to this, many admit that they don’t raise the subject because they don’t know how to approach conversations about mental health.


Don’t let it be the elephant in the room

At In Equilibrium, we see training course feedback from managers and employees on a weekly basis.  It highlights the positive, sometimes life-changing, effect that learning and gaining confidence to start conversations about mental health at work can have.

“I will go away more confident about approaching colleagues who may be
displaying signs of struggling with their mental health.”

“Learnt better ways of starting conversations with staff.”

“I will have the confidence to talk to others about how they are feeling. Enlightening.”

What will you do differently as a result of attending the course?
“Be confident to say something – not so worried of saying the wrong thing.”


You don’t have to be an expert

That last quote exemplifies what stops many of us from starting conversations about mental health at work – a feeling of inadequacy around our knowledge of the subject and being worried we might make things worse.

Accepting we can’t always make things better but that we can show we care by taking a little time to be a listening ear, may be more helpful than we might ever imagine and could help a colleague come up with their own ideas or solutions.


2 Things to consider before starting a conversation

  1. As you don’t know how the conversation will develop, think about where you start it.  For example, you don’t want to be somewhere you could be overheard.  You also want to allow the person privacy if they get upset should they choose to talk.
  2. Make sure you have time for the conversation, as depending on how it progresses, you don’t want to be checking the clock or appearing brusque or rushed.


Practical Tips for good quality conversations about mental health at work

  • Begin with an open question, e.g. “How are you feeling today?”, “You seem a bit low today?”
  • Keep your body language relaxed and open – don’t cross your arms or legs and sit slightly forward or rest your head on your hand to show you are listening.
  • Respect their feelings, beliefs and attitudes which may be different to your own by using non-judgemental language.
  • Demonstrate empathy to let them hear you understand what they are saying and feeling.
  • Give time for a response, silences are ok, don’t rush to fill them.
  • Actively listen to what the other person says, use eye contact (taking cultural differences into account) and nod or make small, affirmative noises to show you are listening.
  • Don’t interrupt but, at an appropriate pause, ask relevant questions and reflect back to them what they have told you to ensure your understanding.
  • As well as listening to the words that are spoken, consider the unspoken e.g. their facial expressions, tone of voice and body language.
  • Discuss confidentiality as this builds trust.  Agree who needs to know and what information it is okay to share.
  • At the end of your conversation summarise it and state any actions either of you have agreed to take e.g. “So, you are going to make an appointment with your GP to let them know how you are feeling and I’m going to email you details of how to arrange free counselling sessions through our Employee Assistance Programme.”
  • It may be that there aren’t any actions, so you may suggest that they might like to take some time to think about what’s been discussed and what they want to do.
  • Finish by reassuring them you are always happy to talk again if they would like to.