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Tips for talking about mental health with workers

The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) suggests one in four people in the UK will experience mental ill-health at some point. Globally, Covid-19 has increased negative impacts on mental health through its associated fears based on: unpredictability, uncertainty, the seriousness of the disease, threat of infection, information gaps and social isolation created by the pandemic.

Fortunately, organisations in many countries have a legal responsibility to support their people, whether work is causing the health issue or aggravating it.

It’s important to know that people with mental ill-health can and do work; most are in employment and the organisations employing them will not necessarily be aware of any mental ill-health symptoms or experiences.

However, talking about mental health with colleagues can be challenging, particularly as many worry about the stigma and prejudice that may come as a consequence of sharing their issues. If this results in workers not seeking the support they need, it can create more complex health needs.

Our Managing Occupational Health and Wellbeing course recommends that one way of improving mental ill-health within the workplace can be an open, one-to-one discussion. Here are some tips that can help make this happen:

  • Offer reassurance. Be mindful that not everyone will want to talk straight away. Let them know what support is available and that when they feel able to talk, support will be there
  • When someone is ready to talk, choose an appropriate place, somewhere private and quiet. Find an environment that will put the person at ease, either at work or outside of work
  • Encourage people to talk - ask simple, open questions and let them speak in their own words
  • Ask what they think may be the cause of their feelings, how it affects their life and work, and what support they are getting or need
  • Don’t make assumptions. They may not need help or may feel they are able to manage. Support might only be needed every now and again, during difficult periods
  • Listen carefully. Make sure that the person, and not their problem, is the focus. Adapt the support to suit them, involve them in finding solutions and check what workplace adjustments you can offer before you have the conversation
  • Ensure confidentiality so that they know what is said will be kept as confidential as possible. If you feel you need to share the information with specific people, such as HR, make sure you get the person’s agreement first.
  • Develop an individual action plan that suits the person and their needs. It can help to identify triggers, impacts on work, who to contact in a crisis, what support they need and also ways to monitor things
  • Encourage the person to seek help themselves – many organisations have employee assistance programmes that can offer counselling or access to helplines
  • Seek advice and support from HR or occupational health if you feel unable to offer the support and advice needed
  • Be honest and clear. If there are concerns about high absence levels or low performance, these need to be addressed at an early stage.

IOSH's Managing Occupational Health and Wellbeing course provides practical advice and tools that will help managers understand why it is important to manage fluctuations in workers’ health, what the causes of ill-health can be and how to recognise when employees may be unwell.

Sponsored by IOSH, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and the Affinity Health at Work Research Consortium, resources and tools are available on Developing managers for engagement and well-being.