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How to start the conversation about mental health in the workplace

Let’s face it, mental health has long been a taboo topic. We didn’t talk about it. We didn’t know what, if anything, we could do to help. We weren’t sure if it was a topic we could properly address, or even if it was really any of our business as employers.

But times are changing, and we now recognize that we can talk about it and that we should be dealing with it.

And about time, too.

Still, there are big issues of employee privacy and the fact that, well, we are not doctors or mental health professionals. In other words, we know we should be talking about it, but we’re not sure how to start the conversation.

But it’s really not that difficult when you get right down to it.

The first thing to do is simply to talk about it and thereby send the message that it’s okay to talk about it. How? Make sure the leadership in your organization talks about mental wellness. Put it out there that help is available. Use your employee communications, your newsletter, your bulletin boards, your benefits and HR e-mails to employees. Put it on the agenda for the health and safety committee. Talk about it at staff meetings.

Get the message out, not just once, but routinely, that you can talk to your boss, or talk to HR, or make the call to the employee assistance plan (EAP). Let them know you need a little help to see you through the rough patch. And remember that the EAP can often arrange a quick referral to professional help with fewer delays than an employee might face trying to go through his or her family doctor.

The second thing we can do is to provide training and guidance for managers and supervisors on how to deal with the issues they identify in their departments or work groups.

The key message for supervisors is to respond to problems in the right terms. We can’t really talk to employees one-on-one about mental health because we’re simply not qualified for that.

But we can talk about job performance and team interaction and the employee’s wellness.

When a supervisor sees an employee struggling, the thing to do is to find a safe space and a good time to talk. And the message is basically this: “As someone who works with you every day, I can see that you seem to be having a hard time, and I want to help. What can we do? Do you want to talk to me about the job? Would it help you to talk to HR? Or maybe the EAP – they deal with every kind of issue every day, and they can help you sort things out.”

Here are some key points to keep in mind:

  • Make sure that leadership talks about mental wellness,
  • Listen to what employees are telling you,
  • Let people talk,
  • Show that you care,
  • Be respectful,
  • Remain supportive of the individual,
  • Never give up, and stay committed throughout the process.

Ultimately, not much is going to happen until employees feel that they can talk, and it’s up to us to create an environment in which talking about mental wellness is just the natural thing to do.

We can manage mental wellness just like we manage every other issue, and the first step is to forget about the taboos and send the message clearly and consistently that it’s okay to talk about it.

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