6 ways to talk about emotional wellbeing with employees

As a line manager, it can be difficult knowing how to approach conversations about emotional distress. Here are six key steps to help staff move from barely surviving, back to thriving.

    1. 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 and 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.

    2. 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. 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 or Mind for example.

    3. 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, an employee that was always punctual and smart starts being late every day and appears dishevelled, or a previously popular, relaxed and productive employee is less productive and sits on their own at lunch. Once you become aware of a change that might show distress, make sure you book in time with the employee in a confidential space. Try beginning 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 – those how, what, where, when questions – and by asking better questions, you show that you are actually interested in them as a person and have really listened.

    4. 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?

    5. Provide a buddy or mentor

    Providing meaningful adjustments continues that theme of really listening – the employer is hearing the difficulties the employee has had in the workplace and is providing support.

    6. 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 effective for the employee without being too disruptive, costly or impractical for the employer. Employees may be concerned about raising these as reasonable adjustments are linked to employment law – that is a person is eligible for adjustments termed reasonable if they are legally defined as disabled by the Disability Act 2010. Adjustments could be:

    • Support with workload – providing increased frequency of supervision and support from others.
    • Physical environment –providing a quiet space to complete reports or allowing the individual the option to leave a public space for a private one if distressed.
    • Working hours or patterns - allowing someone with low mood and disturbed sleep to start and finish later in the day.

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Last updated Monday 20 November 2023

First published on Thursday 4 October 2018