Although conversations about employee wellbeing are commonplace among company leaders and HR professionals l, many individual employees grappling with challenges still hesitate to ask for support at work. This reluctance can be traced back to a single barrier: uncertainty.
The first uncertainty is whom you should speak with. Most employees assume it would be their line manager or a person from the HR department, but that isn’t always true, depending on what you want to get out of the conversation.
If you’re looking for a listening ear, you could approach anyone you feel a sense of psychological safety with. Maybe this is a trusted team member or a wellbeing ambassador of the organisation. Perhaps they had been open about their own mental health before and regularly model healthy behaviours at work, such as setting boundaries to maintain work-life balance.
However, if you need to adjust certain work arrangements, talking to your line manager may be your best bet. But this is where things get daunting: Employees do not know how to initiate such a conversation and communicate their needs effectively. The stakes seem high, too. Should the conversation go awry,
1. Their mental health issues may come across as an excuse for poor performance.
2. They may be labelled “weak” or “incompetent.”
3. They may be penalised implicitly, like not being considered for certain opportunities.
When employees are able to ask for support at work, they can get back on track more quickly. Moreover, it can build trust in working relationships and prevent them from rashly giving up on work they care about due to a temporary setback. In the end, everyone wins—the employee, their manager, and the whole organisation.
In a recent webinar titled “Confronting the Uncomfortable: Navigating Difficult Conversations around Mental Health,” Intellect consulting specialist Nicole Ooi shared a framework to help employees ask for support at work confidently.
How to ask for support at work
The first step is setting a goal, which Nicole refers to as a “mental health vision.” For instance, an employee working 80 hours a week might seek work-life balance, while another returning from maternity leave might aim for a seamless transition back to work. Without a clear goal, both the employee and their manager lack a clear understanding of what success entails.
The second step involves creating a roadmap, a plan to achieve the mental health vision. Now, how much of this plan should you share with your manager?
“You don’t have to explain every detail, and it’s up to you how much you want to share about your life,” she said, emphasising the importance of balancing disclosure with discretion. At a minimum, your manager should grasp the basics of what you’re going through.
Often, the conversation stops here, leaving both parties uncertain about the next steps. This can leave the employee feeling exposed and the manager disempowered, underscoring the significance of the following step.
Next, employees can proactively suggest ways their manager or team members can provide help, being detailed in their requests.
Imagine a new hire stressed by multiple reporting lines within the organisation or the work culture. Roleplaying as this employee, Nicole conveyed her need for clarity:
“Hey, I’m feeling a little stressed about my deadlines. Can we discuss how I report my outcomes to you to gain clarity and reduce some stress for me? I want to ensure I meet deadlines, but there’s a lot of uncertainty right now.”
Notice the importance of the last line. The employee reassures their manager that they’re speaking up because they care about their work. Rather than staying silent and letting their work suffer, they aim to perform well while managing stress.
Sometimes, the employee may not need immediate assistance and could say:
“I’m fine now, but it would be helpful to know what resources are available if I ever need them.”
After this conversation, the employee can schedule a follow-up meeting, giving themselves time to process the discussion.
According to Ooi, a follow-up meeting is particularly crucial when the employee needs time off—a solution that may impact other team members and workflow.
“It would be really helpful if I could find someone to cover for me for this, this, and this, and if I could extend this deadline by this number of days,” she offered as an example, highlighting that the follow-up meeting can help with regrouping upon the employee’s return.
How to communicate assertively
According to Nicole, effective communication is synonymous with assertive communication, which involves speaking about your feelings, thoughts, and beliefs in an open, honest manner while respecting others. Assertive communication sits in the sweet spot between passive and aggressive communication, cultivating authenticity in an individual and building trust between both parties.
In short, assertive communication is controlled, clear, and confident. As these attributes can be abstract, Nicole defines them and provides ways for people to put them into action.
Being controlled means staying calm and intentional with your thoughts, words, and actions. She suggested a breathing exercise to help employees maintain control in what could otherwise be an emotionally charged conversation.
Employees can breathe in through the nose to the count of four, hold this breath to the count of seven, and exhale through the mouth to the count of eight. This exercise will put employees in a more relaxed state, which is necessary to speak in a controlled manner.
Being clear means expressing your needs honestly and succinctly. She provided a four-part “I” template for achieving this goal:
i) State your feelings (i.e. I feel, I think)
ii) Cite a reason or cause (i.e. about, due to)
iii) Provide an explanation (i.e. because)
iv) Conclude with a statement about specific needs (i.e. I would prefer, I would like)
The use of this “I” template avoids the confrontational tone that is set when a person assumes something about how someone else feels or thinks. “Don’t say ‘I feel that you…’ because that’s a ‘you’ message, and a ‘you’ statement can come across as quite critical and cause the other person to become defensive,” Nicole explained.
In contrast, Ooi provided a sample of an ideal way to communicate using the “I” message.
“I feel mentally drained & tired due to the overwhelming work messages after work hours because I feel as though I can never truly take a break from work. I would appreciate it if we could establish a team rule to limit work messages to only important matters outside of working hours,” she shared.
Lastly, confidence is the belief in one’s ability to handle the situation. A person can boost confidence by rehearsing the conversation in front of the mirror, with someone they are comfortable with, or even with a trusted expert, such as an Intellect coach. During these rehearsals, the employee should cover the key points of what they would like to communicate.
“You can write them down if it helps you. This practice reduces the likelihood of nervousness or hesitation during the actual conversation, which could result in stumbling over words or even missing important points altogether,” Nicole emphasises.
Let Intellect’s coaches help you
As employee wellbeing becomes a growing priority in workplaces, the importance of assertive communication, especially in delicate matters like mental health discussions, cannot be overstated.
Whether you’re a manager aiming to lead effectively or a team member looking to enhance your communication skills, Intellect’s team of ICF-accredited coaches can help you engage in difficult conversations and grow both personally and professionally.
Learn more about coaching on Intellect here.