How managers can talk to employees about their mental health

Mental Health
Tan Siew Ann
Oct 3, 2022

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Tan Siew Ann
Freelance B2B SaaS content writer. With the topic of mental health being close to her heart, Siew Ann uses words to help others develop their self-awareness and live their best life.

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The last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have not been kind, with people having to grapple with lockdowns, illness, and ever-changing rules. In a study by employee experience technology provider EngageRocket, 78% of respondents in Singapore and the Asia-Pacific region reported feeling burnt out at work.

“We know that turning up to work every day and going through the daily motions of dealing with the stress of life and family and work […] are really causing people to not feel their best selves,” says Executive Coach of Intellect Robyn Cam.

This spills over to their organisation’s bottom line when productivity takes a hit. However, timely mental health support can stem such losses. In a webinar co-presented with Solutions Consultant Timothy Goh of EngageRocket, Robyn Cam shares how managers can identify employees who may be struggling and support them.

When is a mental health conversation due?

With mental health being a sensitive topic to broach, you’ll want to determine if an employee is indeed in distress—lest things get awkward.

To this end, Robyn advises managers to look out for changes in an employee’s physical appearance, as subtle changes in an employee’s work attire can be a clue that something isn’t right. On top of that, employees going through a rough patch may also display behavioural changes such as:

  • Conducting themselves in a highly animated manner when they are typically more reserved
  • Regularly turning up late for work
  • Being disinterested in the outcome of their work efforts

Of course, baselines matter. An introverted employee keeping to themself is no cause for concern, but the same can’t be said for a team member who had gone from being vocal to reclusive. Avoid jumping to conclusions, but focus on collecting observations for bringing up later.

Prime the conversation

Managers who decide to engage their employees can consider the following aspects.

Timing

Pick a good time when your employee might be in the right frame of mind to open up.

If they are currently overwhelmed with work, for example, imposing a certain meeting date and time may add to their stress. Instead, put the ball in their court by asking them for a suitable time to chat.

Sensitivities

As employees may feel uncomfortable having the conversation within earshot of their colleagues, a private setting is ideal. Alternatively, managers can keep things casual by taking them out for coffee. 

“Have a think about how you can create the environment so it’s going to be a more successful conversation,” Robyn shares.

Verbal and non-verbal cues

Put your employee at ease by asking them for permission to discuss the challenges they’re facing. Non-verbal cues, such as positioning, can also help. Robyn advises against talking to your employee from across a desk. (If you’ve ever had to report to a higher-up in such a manner, you’ll know how confrontational that can seem!)

“It’s usually better to sit side by side with someone, or at an angle on the corner of a table,” she shares. “It can help people feel a little calmer […] and maybe open up.”

Initiate a positive connection

You’ve taken the employee aside for the chat. They’re now looking at you expectantly (and somewhat nervously). What should you say?

Robyn shared a three-step framework for approaching the conversation, as developed by experts from Intellect’s clinical team:

1. Seek to understand the problem

Encourage your employee to open up by expressing your concern for them. Choose your words carefully here: you don’t want to come across as threatening or judgemental.

This means avoiding phrases that could be interpreted as accusations, such as “I’ve noticed you’ve been doing this and this”. A more appropriate opener would be:

“Hey, I’ve been a little bit concerned about you. Is there something you want to talk about?”

Even though your employee’s underperformance may be impacting the organisation, keep the focus of the conversation on their well-being.

For example, if an employee is showing signs of quiet quitting, you could share your worry that they’re disengaging from life in general. Resist any urge to inform them that their nonchalance is harming the organisation’s bottom line.

Following up on your employee’s responses can also help you get a fuller picture of their situation. You can get sample follow-up statements by downloading our free workplace guide to talking about mental health with your employees.

mental health

2. Convey that you are on the same page

As your employee shares what’s on their mind, reassure them that it’s safe to keep going.

“You can say things like ‘Thank you so much for sharing’, or ‘It’s really brave of you to be able to express that openly,” says Robyn.

You may not agree with their perspectives, and you don’t have to, but validating their emotions and empathising with their predicaments can go a long way. 

Far from conveying empathy, making statements such as “What’s the big deal?” or “You are too sensitive” can be hurtful and compel the employee to close up—and cause the conversation to grind to a halt.

3. Offer support

Once you have a good sense of the employee’s situation, offer them your support. 

It should be noted that this is not the same as giving advice. In this context, telling a subordinate what they should or should not do may even overstep boundaries in the workplace. Neither do you have to act as their therapist. Unless you’ve received training in these areas, it’s best to leave such work to mental health professionals.

You can, however, encourage your employee to speak with such professionals to get more clarity on their situation. For example, you can say: “Do you have a good counsellor, or do you already have that support?” You can also share helpline numbers or resources such as the Intellect app.

As a leader in your organisation, your words and actions impact your employees’ wellbeing significantly. Conveying to them that you’re on their team and that you have their backs, is sometimes enough to help them emerge from a difficult situation.

“It is important to foster the feeling of ‘us against the problem’ and not ‘you against the problem’ by knowing how to appropriately respond when an issue is brought up,” advises Linda Rinn, Clinical Psychologist at Intellect.

For more insights and tips, here’s a guide for managers to broach the topic of their employees’ mental health with confidence. It also contains sample scripts for what to say—and what not to say—for each of the three steps. 

About Author

Tan Siew Ann
Freelance B2B SaaS content writer. With the topic of mental health being close to her heart, Siew Ann uses words to help others develop their self-awareness and live their best life.

A healthy company is a happy company

Employees need mental wellbeing support now more than ever. With Intellect, you can give them access to the mental healthcare they need, when they need it.

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