How to Talk About Mental Health at Work

31 January, 2020

Mental health is a tricky subject, and talking about your experiences – even with loved ones – can be incredibly difficult. On Thursday 6th February in the UK we will observe Time to Talk Day 2020; an initiative to get people talking about mental health and creating positive conversations around the subject.

Mental health issues affect around one in four of us, yet many of us would find it difficult to open up about worries and problems we’re having with our mental health. If your workplace is taking part in Time to Talk Day this February, use these tips below to help start positive conversations.


Ask Open Questions and Practise Non-Judgmental Listening

If you approach a conversation about mental health as an interrogation, you’ll find that things will go south pretty quickly. Ultimately, you can’t force people to talk about their mental health, but you can give them the perfect opportunity to. Consider the following two questions: “You aren’t enjoying work lately, are you?” versus “How are you feeling about work lately?”

Yes, these are pretty obvious examples, but language choice is key in framing a question as open and non-judgmental. The first question (“You aren’t enjoying work lately, are you?”) pre-supposes an opinion on the part of the asker, and limits the respondent’s answer to talk about the fact that they’re not enjoying work, which will most likely put someone on the defensive. Depending on who’s asking the question (a manager asking an employee, for example), it could come across as very confrontational ie I know you aren’t enjoying work, and I want to know why.

Now, asking the second question (“How are you feeling about work lately?”) create an opportunity. This isn’t a loaded question, there’s no leading – the respondent is free to answer however they choose. This means that they are much less likely to feel threatened or nervous, and may be more inclined to open up – well, now that I’m thinking about it…

Simply put, keep things open, and don’t go into a conversation with an opinion or an agenda.


Everybody has Mental Health, Whether They’re Suffering or Not

Mental health isn’t black and white – it’s a spectrum that everybody sits on. Much in the same way that no one is the perfect physical specimen, no one is the perfect mental specimen. Trying to group people into those that are mentally well and those that are suffering from mental ill-health simply isn’t effective, and if you approach conversations in this way, you’ll find you come up short.

Making mental health conversations a group activity is an ideal way to level the playing field. This helps everyone remember that, despite workplace roles and politics, we’re all just people at the end of the day, and we can all contribute to a conversation about mental health. The added benefit of this approach is that you’ll have more confident and outspoken people who will be ready and willing to share their stories, which may help more withdrawn, hesitant people to share too.


Create an Appropriate Time and Place

Mental health conversations can be as much about the environment you’re in, as they are about the questions. Imagine it’s a Monday morning at 9am and you’re called into your boss’ office. They ask you to take a seat opposite them on the other side of their desk, then ask “How are you feeling?” Great, they didn’t ask a leading question, but it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll be feeling unsettled, defensive and probably a little confused.

It won’t always be bosses leading the charge on mental health conversations, but spaces and activities for a conversation can create interesting power dynamics that can hinder conversation. Sitting on the opposite side of a desk or table creates a physical and mental obstruction between two people. The desk’s owner will naturally be in control of the situation too, creating a potentially defensive situation. Consider picking a neutral area where everyone feels equal – a breakout area, the canteen, or even an outdoor area.

Similarly, consider the timing of conversations. If you ask colleagues to come away from their desks for a chat at 10am on a Tuesday, you can guarantee that their mind will be on their work, as opposed to 3pm on a Friday for example. Don’t make the situation of being removed from your normal work routine a stressful one.


Don’t Try to Fix Things

It’s always vital to remember that the goal isn’t to fix things – it’s about starting conversations, encouraging positivity and reducing stigmas around mental health. In order to get help, people experiencing mental ill-health need to feel comfortable enough to seek it out, and that’s the primary goal of the Time to Talk campaign.

Recovering from mental ill-health can be a long and sometimes difficult journey – advice and suggestions, no matter how well-intended, won’t realistically help, and may only offer a short-term solution to mask problems at best.

Simply talking can be enough to help someone feel comfortable and supported enough to seek out the help they need.


Think About Using Mental Health First Aiders or Champions

Mental Health First Aid is quickly becoming commonplace in workplaces around the UK. Much like you’d have a physical first aider to respond to workplace accidents, injuries and emergencies, a Mental Health First Aider is available to help colleagues experiencing mental health issues and to signpost them to further help – even in a crisis.

Mental Health Champions are similar in principle but fundamentally contribute to creating a mentally healthy workplace, challenging stigma, and supporting positive wellbeing.

Utilising the skills of these staff members – who must qualify by attending a specially designed course from MHFA England – organisations can facilitate workplace initiatives to help promote positive attitudes around mental health.

Click here to find out more about MHFA.


For More Information

To learn more about the Time To Talk Day campaign, and for more tips and resources, head to the Time To Change website.

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