Mental Health Conversations At Work

Mental health problems can be an issue that anyone experiences at any stage of their lives. But how equipped are managers in the workplace to deal with it? In this article, we will take a look at the growing issue of mental health in the workplace and how managers need to consider their management style to support the worker, comply with legislation but at the same time manage performance and get the job done.

Mental health issues are difficult for both parties – the person experiencing the change in their mental health may find it hard to discuss it at work and the manager may find it equally uncomfortable to have the conversation – which means problems all too often only escalate.

However, it is vital to the organization that it is managed effectively and with compassion. Workplaces that promote mental health and support people who are suffering from mental health issues are likely to have less absenteeism, increased productivity and better team working. Handled well, it can also often determine how quickly people are able to get back to performing effectively. And dealing empathetically with people who declare a condition is not just about retaining valuable staff, it also demonstrates how you truly live your company values.

The stats on mental health are quite shocking – one in almost 7 people experience mental health problems in the workplace which equates to 14.7% of the working population.. And the range of different conditions is extensive, from panic attacks, anxiety, and depression through to Bipolar, Multiple Personality Disorder and Schizophrenia. And that is not an exhaustive list.

A lot of mental health issues develop from stress; however, it is worth looking at the differences between pressure and stress.

  • Pressure is when something is important to us or when we need to perform or deliver something. Many people only perform well when there is an element of pressure attached so a tight deadline can often encourage optimum performance

  • Stress is when there are too many demands on us when we feel overwhelmed and unable to respond appropriately or cope with whatever it is we’re dealing with. It is also when we can see no end to the current situation

Everyone reacts differently to pressure and experiences stress in a separate way, but it is well known that prolonged pressure will inevitably lead to some form of stress condition.

Let’s look at how stress impacts on performance. The first thing would be that we start to fire our stress response more often which means we are often feeling jittery, our appetite is suppressed, and our heart is beating faster. If we are constantly firing our stress response our emotions surface move, our attention span decreases which can lead to poor task management, excessive procrastination, lack of decision making, difficulty in receiving new information and even reduction of team-building behaviours.

This is why it a vital part of managing people is to be constantly watching stress levels and workload – particularly in this new hybrid world, where people feel extra pressure to respond to emails late at night or to work later when they are at home.

So, how is a manager, with little experience of these conditions expected to manage them? Firstly, it is useful to understand the symptoms people may be experiencing. These can be wide-ranging; on top of anxiety and worrying, it could be excessive paranoia, sadness, irritability, extreme mood changes, withdrawal, or dramatic changes in eating or sleeping patterns. The person may lose confidence, have less energy, feel less pleasure from the things that they used to do, feel more agitated, or in worst-case scenario have dark thoughts or contemplate suicide.

The next step in being able to manage mental health at work is for managers to understand their role and responsibilities i.e.

  • Setting expectations with the team

  • Understanding the HR situation with regards to stress and mental health

  • Becoming knowledgeable on well being

  • Being open and available

  • Noticing ‘red flags’

  • Initiating conversations

  • Understanding how to manage difficult conversations

  • Considering what interventions/adjustments to apply

It is also important to know when to refer team members on. It is critical that untrained managers don’t offer advice or try to “fix” any situations that team members disclose to them, but they do need to know who is there to help and support the person including any workplace Psychologists, EAP programmes or other referral schemes.

But before even thinking about referring people, the manager has to encourage them to open up and discuss how they are feeling. This is not always easy as people are reticent to talk for many reasons i.e., worries that people may think they are ‘weird’ or leave them out, feeling that they won’t be taken seriously, embarrassment, not understanding what is wrong themselves, fear of being judged, fear for their job, not wanting to be treated any differently and worried that rumours may spread. They may also not want to be treated any differently or fear that the manager may now reconsider the promotion that they were promised. And of course, the irony is that all these feelings are exacerbating the anxiety that they are feeling which could compound the illness.



Having a mental health conversation takes different skills i.e.

  • Keeping questions very open, shorter and less specific than usual

  • Really listening actively

  • Thinking about language and tone

  • Allowing them to finish their sentences and complete thoughts without interrupting

  • Not hijacking the conversation – focusing on the other person needs

  • Avoiding being judgmental or trying to fix things

  • Reassuring the person that they are doing the right thing by talking about it and checking whether they have spoken to a doctor or a counsellor.

If there is a need to have a managing performance conversation with them, then the two discussions should be separated. If during a performance management conversation with them, they reveal mental health problems, it is important to focus first on the mental health issue and ensure this is completely covered and support has been offered from them before starting to discuss the performance again. Often adjustments might be required but in any of these situations, it is vital to consult with HR early and often.

It is worth keeping in mind that many mental health issues are temporary – they don’t define the person and it is possible they will never encounter these problems again. So, think of it like any other illness whereby the person has symptoms, treatment, and then recovers. Having the chance to talk about it openly and not repress their feeling this can make a massive difference to recovery.

And finally, consider those people who might be supporting family members with mental health issues – it can be a really difficult time for them and often they get no support. Having someone in the workplace who listens without judgement is invaluable. My experience of mental health is extensive, my mother had Bipolar 1 disorder all of her life and as a family, we could never talk about it publicly due the stigma attached to the condition. It was often hard to go to work and cover my emotions, particularly when I had to have my mother sectioned for her own safety.

It is time to normalise mental health conversations in the workplace – for everyone’s sake.