How to support colleagues and staff with their mental health

Supporting a colleague who is in distress

Talking about mental health can seem daunting at first, but we’ve all had conversations with people about bereavements, relationship breakups and other life events. They don’t always come easily but they often mean a lot to someone who is having a tough time.

It all starts with taking the first step. This can be asking someone how they are doing in a warm and authentic way, giving them a chance to realise that you are being sincere and caring.

Time and place

There’s a time and place for everything in the workplace – when it comes to talking with someone about their mental health, that means a time and place that is most comfortable for them.

Take time to discover where this might be – some people like a quiet place whilst others like hustle and bustle going on around them.

It is important to make sure you have enough time too, at least 10 minutes of clear time to give. The last thing anyone needs is to feel rushed. You or they may also want to arrange a time for a longer chat – either in work time if appropriate, or outside work.

It’s very important to give your full attention to the person you are reaching out to to show you genuinely care. That means minimising disruptions like phones ringing or notifications popping up – make sure you are ready and prepared to devote your time to them.

Active listening

Active listening is a term for a range of techniques that keep us present and engaged in a conversation.

Try and ensure you maintain eye contact, unless the person you are talking to doesn’t seem comfortable with that. Be open – that means demonstrating you are open, which can be done through open arms and turning slightly towards them.

You should acknowledge what’s being said with appropriate nods and gestures, and also repeat what they’ve said to check you got it right and reaffirm you are listening.

Ask direct and appropriate questions – but it’s not appropriate to push for more details than a person is prepared to give.

There are plenty of listening techniques that will improve the rapport you create and the impact you’ll have.

  • Building trust and establishing rapport
  • Demonstrating concern
  • Paraphrasing to show understanding
  • Using non verbal cues which show understanding such as nodding, eye contact, and leaning forward
  • Brief verbal affirmations like “I see,” “I know,” “Sure,” “Thank you,” or “I understand”
  • Asking open-ended questions
  • Asking specific questions to seek clarification
  • Waiting to disclose your opinion
  • Disclosing similar experiences to show understanding

Listening responses

Below are some examples of statements and questions employed with active listening. Use the arrows to scroll through.

Building trust and establishing rapport:

“Tell me what I can do to help.”

“I’m really impressed with how you’ve dealt with recent changes in the team.”

Demonstrating concern:

“I’m eager to help; I know you’re going through some tough challenges.”

“I know how hard organisational changes can be. How are you feeling at this point?”

Paraphrasing:

“So, you’re saying that the uncertainty about who will be your new supervisor is creating stress for you.”

“So, you think that we need to build up our customer relations efforts.”

Brief verbal affirmation:

“I understand that you’d like more frequent feedback about your performance.”

“Thank you. I appreciate your time in speaking to me.”

Asking open-ended questions:

“I can see that John’s criticism was very upsetting to you. Which aspect of his critique was most disturbing?”

“It’s clear that the current situation is intolerable for you. What changes would you like to see?”

Asking specific questions:

“How long do you expect the hiring process to last?”

Waiting to disclose your opinion:

“Tell me more about your proposal to re-organise the team’s processes.”

Disclosing similar situations:

“I was also conflicted about returning to work after the stay at home order.”

When the conversation ends, do a full recap of what you have discussed and agreed, and make sure you do what you say you will. It can help to have some information to hand. Put some helpline numbers and web links in your phone or in written form that you can pass on straight away.

The four levels of listening

DOWNLOADING

Listening from habit. In this mode, you are on automatic pilot, just reconfirming what you already know. You assume you already know what is being said, so you are in fact reinforcing old opinions and judgements.

FACTUAL

Listening from outside. Now, you are opening your mind and discovering new information. By paying attention to what is novel, disquieting or different from what you already know, you are able to collect new data.

EMPATHETIC

Listening from within. In this mode, you are opening your heart to see something through another person’s eyes. Able to set aside your own agenda, you can focus on building an emotional connection. This in turn opens the listener and shifts attention from the listener to the speaker, enabling a deeper connection between the two people.

GENERATIVE

Listening from source. At this level, you are opening your will, meaning you listen in such a way that everything slows down and inner wisdom is accessed. In group dynamics, this can be referred to as synergy. In inter-personal communication, it can be described as oneness or flow.

Managing your own feelings

It can be hard to hear difficult or upsetting things from someone else, but you want to reassure and encourage the person – that means not showing signs of surprise or judgement.

You want to reassure the person that it’s OK to be speaking to you, and that you will treat what they say with respect and in confidence.

It is tempting to immediately start suggesting solutions to problems, but it’s wise to ask a person what they want to happen first. They may welcome suggestions, but equally, they may just need to vent how they are feeling.

How do I respond to someone who is having thoughts of suicide?

It is a myth that talking about suicide makes it more likely.

If you are concerned that a colleague might be having thoughts of suicide, the best thing you can do is ask them directly. Be plain and direct – you could ask “Have you had thoughts about killing yourself?” Don’t use euphemisms like “You wouldn’t do something silly, would you?”

If your colleague says they are feeling suicidal or can’t go on, or if you suspect they are thinking of taking their own life, it is important to encourage them to get help. They could contact the Samaritans straight away by calling 116 123 – a free helpline open 24 hours a day. You could also help them to call their local GP practice or a close friend, family member or colleague.

If you are concerned for someone’s immediate safety and believe they are in crisis, or they tell you that they plan to end their life imminently, you can call 999 and ask for the police or take them to your nearest A&E department.

Suicide prevention

Supporting a person with ongoing mental health problems

Most people who develop mental health problems will recover well if they have right support. Recovery isn’t the same thing as cure – often people learn to live with aspects of their mental health problem.

For some people, an episode of mental ill-health is a one-off – triggered by events. Equally, there may be no cause at all. For others, mental health problems can be longer term, or episodic over a lifetime.

Supporting a colleague who has a mental health problem is about helping them to find ways to recover, helping them to stay well and ensuring that the workplace is a safe and pleasant place to be. Remember that the best expert on a person’s needs is themselves.

If there is one golden rule for supporting a colleague it is never to assume they are well and always ask.

How can I support someone if they are off work?

Many people who have been away from work with mental health problems dread returning to work. It can be awkward to know what to say when people have been ill, especially if it has never been talked about or if their behaviour was unusual when they were unwell.

Whether you are a manager or a colleague, keeping in touch and letting someone know you care is a great way to prevent awkwardness.

Below are some suggestions for supporting someone when they are off work.

Ask the person who is off work what they would like their colleagues to be told. Remind colleagues that the image the person presents to the world might not actually reflect their reality.

Invite them out when staff are spending leisure time together – they may decline, but they will still appreciate being asked and feel cared for by their employer, manager or team.

Keep in touch if you would normally socialise with them. Give them a call, message them online or send cards – just as you would if they had any other health problem.

Give them a call a few days before they return to work and ask them if there’s anything you can do – maybe give their desk a tidy, arrange to meet for coffee and walk in to work together or go for lunch on the first day back.

Be there to welcome them back. They are unlikely to want a fuss made, but you shouldn’t shy away from talking about their absence. Ask how they are and if there’s anything you can do to support them moving forwards.

Help them get back into work routines. Ask if they would like your support or attendance at meetings.

How can I support someone from day to day?

Like many people with long-term health conditions, those with mental health problems may need to make long term or permanent changes in their lives or jobs to help them cope and manage their mental health.

Colleagues may need your support on an ongoing basis – don’t assume that they need special treatment but equally don’t assume that everything is fine just because some time has passed.

Check in with colleagues informally in the office to see how they are doing, and, if you manage someone, offer them opportunities to discuss their mental health at supervision sessions.

You could ask if there’s anything you can do to support them with managing their condition. For example, they might ask you to help them spot signs that they may miss that indicate that they may be becoming unwell.

You could offer to be a mentor or coach, or just a friendly support on an ongoing basis.

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