HR & Management

Sharing the load: Why employers need to learn to listen when it comes to mental health

7 min read

19 March 2019

Employers must listen to their employees, and especially so when it comes to their mental health issues. Here's how to do it with compassion whilst staying within the realms of professionalism and good management.

While around 80% of managers think their employees would feel comfortable opening up about their mental health, the reality remains only 5% of employees would actually do so.

A major barrier stopping employees talking about their emotional wellbeing at work is that they won’t be listened to properly because their employer is just “ticking a box” and won’t offer the right support.

Traditionally, the focus has been on how we can encourage employees to talk about their mental health, rather than on how well employers are listening. It’s time the responsibility was equally shared.

1. Set the right tone

Words matter when talking about mental illness. Most times the use of unhelpful language about mental health is due to lack of knowledge, not prejudice.

Managers should know of any difficulties early on to provide the best help. So, nurture a culture that makes people more likely to talk and make sure your work environment encourages people to come forward and raise any mental health concerns.

You’d be more willing to talk to your manager about your mental health in a workplace that speaks about mental illness in a respectful, non-judgemental way, than one which used phrases like “playing the stress card” or worse, “mental”.

2. Keep it simple

Managers are not there to provide therapy. Their role isn’t to spot signs of depression or anxiety in the workplace. It’s to notice changes in staff. Notice when they’re distressed and decide how to provide the right support to help them.

It’s OK to admit you don’t know much about a condition. It can even be beneficial sometimes, encouraging sincere questions about how the problem affects the employee and, if so, their work.

Before entering any conversations, read-up fully on your organisation’s mental health policies, procedures, and available support structures, for example, an Employee Assistance Programme.

Also, check the employee has contacted their GP for advice – you’d be surprised how many people don’t.

3. Notice and really listen

Instead of focussing on diagnoses, look out for changes in how the employee behaves at work. For example, an employee who’s usually punctual and smart starts being late, or a typically outgoing employee sits on their own at lunch.

Initiate a conversation and begin by letting them know you’ve noticed they aren’t themselves. Most importantly, ask if they’re okay.

Don’t make assumptions about what that person is experiencing, as everyone’s different. Try not to guess anything, instead ask questions to show you’re interested and have really listened.

Always consider three questions: have you asked anyone for support or talked to anyone else about this? What kind of support do you think might help? What would you like to happen now?

This way any support offered is about that person, not something forced upon them.

4. Understand reasonable adjustments

A reasonable adjustment is a unique change to someone’s needs that enables them to do their job. It’s not too disruptive, costly or impractical for the employer.

Adjustments could be around working hours or patterns, like allowing someone with disturbed sleep to start and finish later in the day. Environment adjustments could include providing a quiet space to work.

Providing meaningful adjustments continues the theme of truly listening to the employee’s difficulties and providing support that makes a difference.

Follow-up

Some managers can get so caught up in how to approach an individual – what they should say and how to say it – that they forget to follow up.

It’s important to clarify to the employee what the next steps are, who is doing what and when, and when you’ll next catch up.

We all get busy, but you need to make sure contact doesn’t slip.

The best support structures

The best support structures are those that normalise notions of speaking about mental ill health and seeking help. This requires buy-in from CEOs and company leaders, showing themselves to be leading from the top.

They could be as simple as encouraging flexible working to reduce stress and promote a social life or supporting mental health champions in the workplace.

Emotional literacy training can improve managers’ abilities to support their employees, equipping them with self-awareness, empathy and relationship building to make them better listeners.

At Nuffield Health, over 12,000 employees have successfully completed this emotional literacy training, with 94% of them saying they’d feel confident supporting a colleague showing signs of emotional distress.

What to do next

Learning to listen is a key starting point for improving your workplace’s wellbeing support strategy. The next step is to create a workplace culture that champions listening, as well as talking.

We often see the figure ‘1 in 4’ people in the UK experience a mental health problem every year, but at Nuffield Health we’re shifting the approach towards supporting a ‘4 in 4 culture’.

Using the ‘1 in 4’ statistic can reinforce a sense of isolation and difference which can overwhelm those experiencing distress, preventing them from approaching for help.

A ‘4 in 4’ culture means seeing every employee as having mental health, which needs to be protected and enhanced.

Brendan Street is professional head of emotional wellbeing at Nuffield Health