Having the conversation about mental health at work
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Mental health news every morning.
It was after taking on his first management job that Jaan Madan discovered the impact of a conversation. Having recently moved to a new area with his young family, he was determined to excel at work — but his mental health soon started to deteriorate.
“Quite rapidly, my performance dropped,” he says. “I was coming to work earlier, I was staying later, I was trying to catch up. It was having an impact on my personal life, the team was starting to drift, and were unhappy.”
Now global head of training development at MindForward Alliance, a non-profit working with big businesses, Madan remembers a turning point came when “someone senior to me came up one afternoon and said, ‘Turn your computer off, let’s go for a walk together,’ and asked me how I was”.
Research from the charity Mind suggests that work is often the biggest cause of stress in people’s lives, and that people experiencing poor mental health struggle to concentrate and will put off challenging tasks.
Sign up for the survey!
Help your employees get happier, healthier and more productive. Any organisation in the UK with 20 or more employees can take part. Click here to sign up now.
To mitigate this, experts say communication is critical. Miriam Earley, director of inclusion and wellbeing at Deloitte, points out that if an employee had a “broken leg, we’d want to know, so we can ensure the right adjustments are in place — and we take the same approach with mental health”.
This can be as simple as an employee talking to a manager about practical ways to support their wellbeing. Andrew Berrie, Mind’s head of workplace wellbeing, says: “It might be [you’re given the time to] go for a walk in the park, it might be picking the kids up from school. It’s having a conversation with your manager about how to facilitate that.” Deloitte has formalised this idea through its “ways of working framework”, which offers a template of prompts to help colleagues communicate their wellbeing needs.
For managers, meanwhile, ensuring a healthy workplace culture is more complex than simply offering “fruit bowls and yoga”, notes Madan. “It’s about building relationships, trust and connection,” he says. “To be effective, [managers] have to engender these values every day.”
The importance of this trust can be seen in recent studies. According to Mind’s research, only 35 per cent of those aged 18 to 24 say they would disclose a workplace mental health problem, compared with half of older workers. Despite the younger generation being “the most mentally literate” yet, says Berrie, “stigma hardens in times of economic hardship”.
Managers’ roles in overcoming this are vital. A report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development this month said there were clear links between line manager quality and employee mental health. In part, this comes from “getting to know an individual and ongoing conversations”, says Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser at CIPD. “I have a weekly catch-up with my manager and the environment feels safe. It’s natural for him to ask me how I am, and that question to be meaningful.”
The environment in which these regular conversations take place matters. As far as possible, it should allow for a confidential discussion, says Berrie. This means putting phones on silent to avoid interruptions. If it is a virtual meeting, give appropriate notice to your colleague so they can find a confidential space.
Beyond regular check-ins, managers may notice changes in a worker’s behaviour, such as missing deadlines or being less talkative. Asking questions is fine, as long as they are non-judgmental and focus on the person, not their performance. For example, “I’ve noticed you’ve been arriving late recently. Let’s put work to one side for the moment, is everything OK?”
Our Working It newsletter provides everything you need to get ahead at work. Sign up here to get the newsletter sent straight to your inbox every Wednesday
One pitfall, says Berrie, is making assumptions. Some managers might have had a previous employee who suffered mental ill health, but comparisons are often unhelpful. “Something we heard reported during the pandemic was people being asked, ‘[If] everyone else is in the same boat and they’re doing the fine, why can’t you?’”
Managers need to recognise their limitations, too, says Earley, “so people can access expert help they need” — whether that is from HR or a doctor. They may need proper training, in addition to being given the necessary resources and time. Otherwise, warns Suff, there’s a risk “managers just approach it as a formalistic tick box”.
Not every employee will open up at work — and that is OK. “You’re someone’s manager and, regardless of your role, you’re probably not their therapist as well,” says Madan. “There isn’t a magic sentence you can use. If people don’t want to talk to you, then it’s about recognising and honouring that.”
Or, as Suff puts it, a colleague’s wellbeing is sometimes “outside the organisation’s control — but what the organisation can do is make sure that it doesn’t make that problem worse”.
Top tips from professionals on what to do — and avoid
Choose a location where you can talk in private and where the employee will feel comfortable.
Use simple, non-judgmental questions and a calm voice, listening carefully.
Follow up with a plan of next steps, which can be reviewed regularly. If you’re not sure where to start, the charity Mind has a template.
Make assumptions about the employee’s health, symptoms, or how it might be affecting their work.
Get distracted from the conversation. Put phones away, avoid interruptions from colleagues and focus on the person.
Try to solve their problem on your own. It is important to recognise boundaries and, where appropriate, encourage the employee to speak to an expert.