Poor mental health is widespread in the workplace, but many are struggling in silence because their managers lack the skills and confidence to offer them the support they require.

To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, Emma Bullen from MHR provides practical advice on how managers can initiate conversations about mental health with employees and establish a positive open culture around mental wellbeing in the workplace.

Good mental health is something that we all need, just like we all need good physical health. Nearly half of adults in the UK believe they have suffered with a diagnosable mental health condition at some point in their lives[1] so it is important that people managers are comfortable enough to engage in dialogue around the subject.

Uncharacteristic or erratic behaviour, dips in productivity and frequent sickness are some of the warning signs that you can look out for when identifying potential mental health conditions among your people. Often, those who are suffering with their mental health are reluctant to disclose the true reason for their absence, so it is down to managers to take note of the signs and act appropriately.

Research by mental health charity Mind revealed that less than half of people who had been diagnosed with a mental health condition had told their manager.[2] Employers must create a culture that supports people to be open when it comes to talking about their mental health. This should be led from the top of the organisation as employees need to feel that senior managers are taking the matter of mental health seriously, and that disclosure will lead to support rather than discrimination.

Clear mental health strategies and policies will illustrate to employees that there is support in place should they need it.

To ensure that employees feel comfortable seeking support, managers must be approachable and confident when speaking about the topic. Normalising conversations about mental health and holding regular catch-ups with employees will help to build trust and provide an opportunity for issues to be raised at an early stage.

Striking up conversation about someone’s mental health can be a daunting prospect. However, basic managerial skills are all that is required to undertake this task.

The first step is to simply ask the employee how they are doing. As a manager, you will know your own team better than anyone else in the organisation, which is a vital attribute for creating a worthwhile discussion with them. Offering open communication will help you understand the employee’s situation and put the necessary support plan in place for their wellbeing.

When engaging in conversation about an employee’s mental health, location is key. The workplace can be a stressful setting for this sort of discussion so it is advisable to take it off site or at the very least to a secluded meeting room.

Now for the talking. Open and non-judgmental questions are key, giving the employee an opportunity to put their feelings into words without making assumptions about their condition or symptoms. It is important that managers actively listen and take a flexible approach to the employee’s requirements for support. Equally important is that the manager is comfortable to be honest about any absence or performance problems, so that these can also be addressed.

If and when the employee is ready, the manager should work with them to develop a support and action plan to enable the employee to maintain a good standard of performance while ensuring their wellbeing. This should include provisions for the employee to seek external help from their GP or through an Employee Assistance Programme if your organisation has one in place. A date should also be agreed to review the action plan and whether or not the support is sufficient[3].

It pays to be armed with information on the support available. If your organisation provides an Employee Assistance Programme, then this can be discussed as part of the available support. Not being aware of any internal policies gives the impression that you don’t consider mental health issues to be of high importance, which can leave employees feeling less confident to approach you.

Remember, if the employee is not ready to talk about their mental health when you approach them, you should not force the issue. Instead, giving the employee reassurance that you are accessible to them if and when they wish to have a discussion sends a powerful message that you are interested in their wellbeing.

Of course, there are actions that employers should take in order to prevent work from becoming a trigger for poor mental health, and holding conversations around the topic is not the overall solution but it is a stage that employers cannot afford to overlook.

Ultimately, mental health problems need to be taken seriously by your business, and while you can’t fix the problems your employees face, you can offer support and guidance – that’s the difference between success and failure in supporting your people.