Starting Mental Health Conversations: A Manager's Guide

Talking about mental health in the workplace can reduce stigma and support help-seeking

Creating a team environment that supports open, candid conversations about mental health can make a real difference in providing a safe space where people are comfortable seeking support if they need it.

Tips to start the conversation with your team

Sharing any personal experiences about mental health can make a real difference in creating a working environment where people are comfortable seeking support if they need it. Talking about mental wellbeing the same way you would physical health is a good place to start.

Education and training on mental health conditions help increase awareness and provide tools to identify if they or someone else needs support.

Increasing you and your team’s understanding of psychosocial risk factors, how to identify these, report them, and put in place measures to reduce them as you would physical risks is also recommended.

Meetings that are part of the normal work routine provide a neutral, open, and non-stigmatising forum to discuss mental health. When discussing mental health with your team, consider including some of these talking points:

The prevalence rates in the Australian community

  • 20% of Australians are affected by mental illness every year; and 45% will experience a mental illness in their lifetime.
  • That most people will be affected by mental illness in their lifetime, either personally or through family and friends, so in turn, every organisation is also affected.
  • That, just like physical illness, mental illness can affect us irrespective of age, job, background or personality.
  • That everyone responds differently to the stresses of life and it is common to describe ourselves as ‘stressed’, ‘anxious’, ‘sad’, ‘unmotivated’ or ‘depressed’ from time to time. Sometimes, these feelings can become serious enough for a person to seek professional advice.
  • Mental illness may develop as a result of an event in our professional or personal life – or it can just happen.

If available, human resources (HR) or your Employee  Assistance Program (EAP) manager assistance service often have additional suggestions on how to start the discussion with your team. The Heads Up website is also a great source of information and resources. If employees are encouraged to seek help early, it can minimise the impact on their professional and personal lives.

Talking about mental health one-to-one

From time to time, managers may notice changes in an employee’s work performance or interactions with other staff, for example, where an employee is working more slowly, misses deadlines, has been taking excessive sick leave, or regularly arrives late for work. It is important to discuss with an employee any negative changes you have noticed in their work performance or interactions with other staff. The earlier this is done, the better.

Meet with the employee

Regular catch-up meetings that are part of the ordinary management process provide a good opportunity to address any concerns about an employee’s performance at work. Alternatively, it may be appropriate to initiate an informal meeting with an employee you are concerned about. These types of discussions may be uncomfortable, and it is normal for some employees to feel threatened or anxious when their manager attempts to discuss behavioural issues with them. It is a good strategy to begin the conversation with open-ended questions that provide an employee with an opportunity to discuss workplace stress and other issues – noting how it may be affecting their performance at work. For example, “I’ve noticed you’ve been arriving late to work recently, is  everything okay?”

Remember, your role isn’t to diagnose a mental illness or to act as an employee’s counsellor. The focus of any meeting should always be work-related. The purpose of meeting with any employee regarding mental health concerns is to determine reasonable adjustments that can be made to assist them with performing their duties and to offer support and provide guidance, for example offering access to Employee  Assistance Program (EAP) services, if available, or flexible work arrangements.

Disclosure

Employees are not required to disclose they have a mental illness unless it affects their ability to carry out the inherent requirements of their position – or it poses a  threat to their health and safety or the health and safety of others.

If an employee does disclose that they are experiencing a mental illness, be supportive and non-judgemental and inform the employee about possible short-term adjustments and flexible work practices that might assist with their recovery, such as changes in work schedules or tasks.

As a general rule, the disclosure should not be disclosed to a third party without the employee’s consent. There may be exceptions, for example, where disclosure is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious or imminent threat to the health and safety of the employee concerned and/or other staff, or if the use of the information is required or authorised by law. It is important to inform the employee about the organisation’s policies and practices regarding privacy.

Respond appropriately

If an employee discloses that they are experiencing  a mental illness, or you already know an employee has a mental illness, managers should:

Identify, eliminate or minimise any work-related risks or issues that may have contributed to the employee’s mental illness, such as incidents of bullying or harassment;

In consultation with the employee, determine what reasonable workplace adjustments can be made to assist them with  performing their duties; and

Ensure adequate facilities and support systems are available for the welfare of employees with a mental illness, such as access to counselling and support services.

Managers must not discriminate against, harass or victimise a person in the workplace because they have a mental illness, for example by:

Treating someone less favorably because of their diagnosis or condition, including in relation to employment decisions such as promotion or performance management.

Imposing, or proposing to impose an unreasonable requirement, condition or practice that cannot be complied with by the person and a higher proportion of people with that attribute can comply.

In circumstances where an employee’s performance continues to be an issue and following consideration of reasonable adjustments, managers are entitled to apply standard performance management processes and take disciplinary action where appropriate, considering the employee’s personal circumstances.

Are you concerned someone is at risk of taking their own life?

When someone talks about suicide or life “not being worth living”, it should always be taken very seriously. If you believe the risk is serious, speak to the person and seek help from others, including management and HR.

If you are concerned that an employee is at risk of hurting themselves or others, you have a duty of care to act to prevent any risk. Your response will depend on the circumstances and you should seek help from management and HR.