Healthy conversation about mental health

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Written by Lou Campbell on 1 September 2022 in Opinion

Psychological Safety around mental health is more than just words – it requires thought, and boundaries says Lou Campbell

Businesses and organisations are increasingly sensitive to the need to create an environment where employees can speak openly about all types of issues and experiences, including about their mental health concerns.  Although this is a positive step, the impulse to ‘help’ can lead to HR or line managers doing more harm than good if they are not sufficiently informed in navigating mental health conversations appropriately. 

Psychological safety is increasingly an important workplace topic, particularly the need to promote a space where diversity of thought and open conversations are encouraged. This is key to an inclusive workplace environment, and where the mental health and wellbeing of employees is more likely to be nurtured and valued.

Employers that cultivate psychologically safety and encourage staff to express their views and vulnerabilities can show care for existing employees whilst also making themselves more appealing in the fight for skills and talent. 

However, many organisations find themselves struggling to stay on the right side of the boundaries when it comes to conversations around employees’ mental health, with few getting it right. 

Psychological safety is increasingly an important workplace topic, particularly the need to promote a space where diversity of thought and open conversations are encouraged

Counterproductive advice

Many leaders welcome the opportunity to engage in conversations with colleagues about mental health, but often without understanding the appropriate boundaries. Concerningly, there are regular instances of managers and HR professionals offering unqualified mental health advice or turning the conversation onto their own experiences, rather than listening and signposting to professional support. This has the real potential to descend into a psychologically unsafe situation for all parties.
Recent research highlighted these trends, with 38% of HR managers engaging with employees about their mental health outside of working hours, and 26% of those surveyed recognised that they become overly involved in employees’ mental health issues.

Overstepping boundaries
Boundaries around support for physical health issues are more clearly defined than those around mental health. If an employee had a back injury, it is unlikely that a manager or HR professional would attempt to manipulate their spine or provide a treatment plan – this would obviously be dangerous and a clear breach of the employee’s boundaries! However, mental health is not always perceived this way and many managers and HR professionals assume they are expected to provide mental health advice and counselling.

Setting boundaries around mental health conversations is fundamental to psychological safety. The training of HR professionals and line managers to have supportive and appropriate conversations with employees about their mental health helps to establish boundaries, boost confidence of leaders who want to be supportive, and rein in those who have a tendency to over-involvement or rescuing behaviours.

Tips for healthy conversations about mental health

If a colleague is willing to talk about an issue, they will want to be listened to and validated. It is essential not to interrupt, to avoid offering anecdotes about your own mental health, and ensure that the employee does not feel analysed, or simply encouraged to focus on the “positives”.

Unless you are a qualified mental health professional, 
it is not safe to give advice or try to solve a colleague’s mental health issues. An exploration of what the employee might find helpful, what work-related support they might benefit from, and whether they are getting support from outside work, is the correct approach. Learning a few simple explorative questions is important.

Signpost to professional support
This is often appropriate, especially if the organisation has an EAP, or a counselling service in place. However, signposting is more than a logistical step, it is a skill. If handled incorrectly, it can be interpreted negatively by employees: being told to get professional support can be viewed as a threat or accusation.

Employees increasingly expect psychological safety around mental health issues to be part of the work landscape. Employers who fail to train staff in the skills to navigate these conversations in a psychologically safe way may struggle to create a culture that attracts and empowers the workforce of the future.

Lou Campbell is co-founder and programmes director at Wellbeing Partners 


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