6 ways to support employees with their mental health

We want to inspire more open conversations across your organisation around mental health. Brendan Street, Head of Emotional Wellbeing, provides six ways to support your staff and help those suffering with poor mental health move from barely surviving, back to thriving.

1 in 4* people in the UK will experience mental ill health each year. However, 4 in 4 people (all of us) have mental health needs. Every one of us has a state of mental health that changes day-to-day depending on our experiences, just as our physical health does. Research has shown that only 1 in 6** employees feel comfortable discussing these needs with their employer. Employees fear it will hurt their career or don’t know what is available or how to talk to their manager about it. As such, the needs of employees remain hidden. As a line manager, it can be difficult knowing how to approach conversations about emotional distress.

Mental health for all

Mental health is one of the most neglected areas of public health. One billion people globally are living with mental ill health, with one person dying every 40 seconds by suicide. This year, billions of people around the world have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is having a further impact on people’s mental health.

World Mental Health Day takes place on 10th October and the theme this year is Mental Health for All: Greater Investment – Greater Access.

Mental health is a human right and it’s time that mental health is made available for all. Accessible quality primary health care is the foundation for universal health coverage and is urgently required as the world grapples with the current health emergency. We therefore need to make mental health a reality for everyone, everywhere.

Given the context of COVID-19 and with many individuals working from home or in new and challenging environments, the mental health of employees is more important than ever.

As a line manager you are likely to be checking on your employees' mental health via remote ‘check-ins’. The tips below, along with our whitepaper on the effects of remote working on wellbeing, stress and productivity, outline how you can be supportive to remote workers.

Set the right tone

Make sure that the workplace is an environment that encourages people to come forward and talk about mental health problems.

Talk about mental illness in a respectful, non-judgemental, clear and understandable way. Don’t use disrespectful language, such as describing individuals as “playing the stress card” or stating that someone is “mental”. This language doesn’t encourage a positive environment to talk about mental health.

Keep it simple

Remember you are not there to provide therapy. Your role is not to spot cases of depression or anxiety in the workplace or to diagnose, but to notice changes in your staff and when they are distressed.

If you recognise changes, you can then try to find out more and suggest the right support that will help them. To do this you will need to agree how you remain in contact regularly with your staff given remote working and social distancing.

As you are not a therapist, it’s ok to admit that you don’t know much about a condition or diagnosis. In many ways, this is better as it will make sure you ask sincere questions about how the problem affects them and what they think the implications are for their work.

You’re there to listen and signpost to support, so make sure you are fully aware of all your mental health policies and procedures and the support you have in place in the workplace.

Always double check if they have contacted their GP for advice – you’d be surprised how many people don’t associate difficulties with their mood with their GP. It’s also a good idea to have a contact list of outside agencies like The Samaritans.

Notice and really listen

Don’t set out to spot depression or anxiety in your employees, but keep vigilant for changes in the way an employee is at work. For example, if an employee that was always punctual and smart starts being late to appointments and appears dishevelled. Or if a previously popular, relaxed and productive employee is less productive and avoids contact.

Once you become aware of a change that might show distress, make sure you book in time with the employee in a confidential space. Open the conversation by letting the person know you have noticed that they aren’t their usual self.

Try not to make assumptions about what that person is experiencing. If you avoid making assumptions, you ask better questions – the how, what, where and when questions. By asking better questions, you show that you are interested in them as a person and have really listened.

In order to notice how an employee really is, or to spot any changes, there is a necessity to ensure that some contact, for remote workers, is via video conferencing. The frequency of this needs to be with the agreement of the employee.

Show interest

When you’re asking questions, make sure these are open questions of interest that encourage positive conversation or actions, such as:

  • What has been happening to you?
  • How has it affected you?
  • What sense did you make of it?
  • What has been helpful to you in coping?
  • Have you asked anyone for support or talked to anyone else about this?
  • What kind of support do you think might help?
  • What would you like to happen now?

Provide a buddy or mentor

Providing support continues that theme of really listening – the employer is hearing the difficulties the employee has had in the workplace and is taking action to help.

Understand reasonable adjustments

A reasonable adjustment is a change or adjustment unique to a person’s needs that will enable them to do their job. The term ‘reasonable’ just means that the change is effective for the employee without being too disruptive, costly or impractical for the employer.

Adjustments could be:

  • Support with workload: Providing increased frequency of supervision and support from others
  • Working hours or patterns: Allowing someone with low mood and disturbed sleep to start and finish later in the day
  • COVID-19: In the current context of COVID-19 reasonable adjustments may be more difficult and will require assistance from human resources.

You can read more of our articles celebrating World Mental Health Day to see how you can support your employees' mental health.

* Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey
** Business in the Community: Mental Health At Work Report (2018)

Last updated Wednesday 24 February 2021

First published on Thursday 14 May 2020