How to support an employee dealing with mental health issues

Tackling mental health issues in the workplace starts with a difficult conversation. Here’s how to make it easier…

The annual cost of mental illness on Australian business is in the billions. These numbers do not account for the human cost on the employee dealing with a mental illness or the effects on their colleagues and employers.

If you know your employees, you can usually spot changes in their behaviour that may be early signs of mental health issues. It might be that they avoid doing work activities they previously enjoyed or they may appear tense or tired.

Having a conversation with an employee when it relates to their behaviour or a potential mental health issue can be daunting – but it doesn’t have to be.

Some DOs and DONT’s to help you help your people:

DO know what support services your organisation can provide. Do you have an Employee Assistance Program? Do you have a relationship with an occupational medical practice?
DON’T wait for things to get better or assume the problem will go away.
DO plan a meeting – think about what you want to say first. Why are you concerned? What may be the cause of the problem? What reasonable adjustments could be made if needed?
DO proactively initiate the conversation.
DO reassure the employee you will keep the conversation private and confidential in compliance with your company’s policies on confidentiality.
DON’T make assumptions — in particular don’t assume the employee has a medical condition.
DON’T ask your employee if they have a mental health condition or what their doctor says.
DO ask your employee if they require assistance before providing it.
DO use appropriate language, like “I have noticed” and “I’m concerned”.
DON’T use intimidating or untrustworthy body language such as crossing your arms and legs or avoiding eye contact
DO maintain clear professional boundaries when offering support.
DO articulate an outcome from the conversation even if you don’t need to action anything at this stage.

Two outcomes will likely result from an approach to an employee: denial or acknowledgment. It’s okay if an employee denies any issues and rejects your offer of support – just let them know you are available at any time for assistance.

Continue to monitor their behaviour to see if the issues resolve or continue. If the issues continue, you may consider having another conversation or, in some instances, performance management may be appropriate.

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