Approaching employees about their mental health

09 January 2018

As an employer or manager, part of your role is to not only look out for your employees’ mental health and wellbeing, but to know what to do if things don’t seem to be going well.
Approaching someone about their mental health can be a challenge. Here’s some advice on how to handle this well.


Understand your responsibilities

Knowing what isn’t expected of you as a manager or employer is just as important as understanding the right thing to do. The first thing to realise is you’re not expected to be a mental health expert. “We don’t actually want managers to diagnose,” says clinical and organisational psychologist Dr Peter Cotton. “And you don’t have to counsel people.”

Focusing on your leadership role is key to approaching your employees’ health and wellbeing. “A good people leader has their finger on the pulse of their team, so a good manager will know their people and whether someone’s performance is deteriorating or their behaviour is changing,” Cotton says.


Look at behaviours

There are some generic warning signs when things aren’t going well for someone. These are often behavioural, and might include coming in late, leaving early, falling behind on work, becoming agitated, appearing glum, no longer contributing to the team, or anything else that’s unusual for them. “When people are behaving differently than they usually do, that’s sufficient to initiate some early supportive conversations,” Cotton explains.

When you’ve noticed a difference, there are two things to remember:

  • It’s not your role to know what this behavioural difference means. “It might be depression or anxiety, or it may not,” says Cotton. “But it’s enough of a trigger to know something isn’t right so it should initiate a caring, concerned conversation to see how they’re going.”
  • Performance can become a mental illness victim. “If someone’s falling into depression, it will affect their performance,” says Cotton. “It undermines their cognitive functioning, so they can’t concentrate as well and their output might deteriorate.” Before heading into performance management measures, check first whether there is a contributing health issue.


Conduct wellbeing checks

Approaching someone about their mental health can be difficult, and can cause some backlash. “One of the initial ways people cope with moving into depression is by trying to ignore it and forge on,” says Cotton. “What you might effectively be doing is holding up a mirror, and they can find that confronting.”

The alternative is to take a different, less confronting angle. “Framing these conversations as a wellbeing check rather than saying you think they have a mental health problem is what we recommend,” says Cotton.

Wellbeing checks should not make employees feel targeted. Instead, they can be part of an overall organisation culture where positive health and wellbeing is valued. “From time to time, you should be letting your staff know that people’s wellbeing is important and that anyone struggling can come and talk to you,” says Cotton. “If you foster a climate that’s supportive of wellbeing, then when you do have a chat with someone, people expect that’s just how you do business.”


Focus on the workplace

Employees don’t have any obligation to disclose their mental health illnesses or challenges, so remain focused on what’s affecting them at work. “Your focus is on behaviours that are observable within the workplace, and the cause of those things is secondary and it’s for a mental health expert to determine this,” Cotton explains.

Once you’ve noticed something different in a person’s behaviour, you can speak about the employee’s job to find out if this is causing or aggravating any issues. “Once you know what’s going on at work you can start to problem solve any concerns,” Cotton says.


Know what to do next

It’s likely one conversation isn’t going to fix everything. “There’s a process you need to undertake over time that’s a series of discussions,” says Cotton. “Reiterate what you’ve observed and that you’re simply concerned about their wellbeing, suggest they think about it, and then follow it up with them a couple of days later.” Cotton says genuine concern and action will usually help over time.

Referring your employers on to the experts is important too. Encourage the use of Employee Assistance Programs or other medical assistance and mental health experts.

For further information and ideas for approaching staff about mental health and wellbeing, see SuperFriend’s wide range of resources and programs on how we can help in the workplace.