09 Nov How to Effectively use One-on-One Talks to Promote Mental Health in the Workplace
Knowing when and how to engage with someone who may be struggling with their mental health can be difficult. Talking about mental illness isn’t easy, particularly at work and particularly for people with a mental health condition. You don’t want to jump to conclusions about someone or seem judgmental. You don’t want to offend a colleague. And you want to respect professional and personal boundaries. It may be most challenging to speak to people who have a serious mental illness, as they are often the most stigmatized, making them extremely reluctant to talk about the issue.
Before talking to someone, listen and watch for signs that they are struggling, as well as for their potential sensitivities. For example, colleagues with serious and chronic issues may disclose their feelings but not their diagnosis. They may also experience self-stigma, or the internalization of the stigma, which can amplify the impact of others’ negative beliefs. Further, people with mental illness may experience an anticipated stigma or the belief that they will experience prejudice, discrimination, and stereotyping. For these reasons, they often have heightened sensitivity to the stigma and rejection. Keep in mind the following strategies and considerations for your conversation.
Reflecting on and correcting your own implicit bias around mental health will help you be an ally to your colleagues. You may not mean to contribute to the stigma, but even an unintentional stigma is hurtful. Think about any assumptions or preconceptions you may have about mental health conditions and the people who deal with them. Then, discard them. Be open and approachable with your colleague and consider sharing your own vulnerability or experience with mental health challenges. If you have this experience directly or through other relationships, talking about it to open dialogue can be very powerful, putting you and the other person on more equal footing and showing that you are empathic and understanding. Being an ally requires patience, gentle persistence, and creativity. Don’t be frustrated or discouraged if your initial efforts to comfort a colleague are unsuccessful. The goal of any conversation should be to help your coworker talk about their struggles, support them by asking whether and how you can help, and gently remind them of any benefits or resources your company or healthcare plan provides.
Find a good time
If you notice a significant change in a colleague’s mood or behavior, you may want to initiate a conversation. Watch for impaired concentration, missed deadlines, reduction in work quality, less communication, “worried” appearance, tardiness, and repeated unexplained absences. You might be inclined to ignore this behavior as a private matter or as something for your manager or HR to address. But if you’re close with the person, you might be in the best position to identify an issue and connect with your colleague by reaching out in a friendly and caring way. Timing is important; try to pick a “good day” when your colleague seems approachable or relaxed. Some people show no outward signs of struggle or work concerns, such as those who suffer from high-functioning anxiety. You can’t always assume that someone is not struggling merely based on their appearance or work performance. Creating a workplace culture where colleagues demonstrate understanding and empathy will help people feel more comfortable reaching out or seeking support when needed. HR and managers should make resources, including a mental health handbook, available and easily accessible to all.
Talking about mental health should be as normal as possible. Simply asking, “How are you feeling today?” or “How was your weekend?” or “How’s that assignment going?” can create space for a mental health discussion. Of course, you’ll want to strike an open, genuine, and empathic tone. A casual, non-confrontational approach can facilitate a more open dialogue. Be prepared that your colleague may be defensive or try to hide their challenges. They may fear being stigmatized, a topic of office gossip. So don’t insist that your colleague talks with you. Instead, gently nudge them by telling them you’re available to listen if and when they want to speak. Validate the person’s performance; they may experience strong self-doubt, which can be paralyzing. They may also experience imposter syndrome or feel guilty for being a “weak link” or not “keeping up” with the team. Remind them of how they were able to overcome challenging tasks in the past, reassuring them that things will be OK, and making them feel valued and needed. You can also help brainstorm other ways to reduce their workload if that is negatively contributing to their mental health.
Find the right approach
Try reaching out in different ways. Starting with a face-to-face discussion may not be ideal, as people with mental health challenges may feel ashamed or embarrassed. Reaching out with a call or text message may be more effective. If you talk in person, consider whether a spot away from the office would provide more privacy. Begin the conversation by assuring that what you discuss will be kept private and confidential — and, of course, honor what you say. After the initial discussion, continue the conversation if the person is willing to, especially if they have shared sensitive information. Many people with mental illness fear being disliked, abandoned, or rejected once others learn of their illness. So continue to have regular conversations while gently checking in. Sometimes people are more willing to talk about stressors than a mental health challenge, even if the stressor led to their challenges. For example, you can ask, “How are the kids adjusting to school?” instead of, “Are you still stressed about your kids?”
Use Supportive Language
When talking to a colleague who is or may be struggling with their mental health, always be mindful of what you’re saying and how you say it. The following are a few samples of what to say and not say. Every person has their own trigger points or vulnerabilities, so stay thoughtful and considerate.