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How to talk about mental health at work

Let’s be honest, many of us are struggling with our mental health right now – whether anxiety is heightened, mood is low or stress is peaking. The reality is that life can be tough and we just don’t have enough places where we can say that openly.

One place where it can be especially hard to talk about mental health is in the workplace, which means that all too often we don’t talk about it. We tend to keep it bottled up… and often end up feeling all the worse for it.

Illustration of two coworkers working at the same desk in front of each other, one looking worried

If a colleague is off sick with the flu or a broken bone, we’re more than happy to talk about it and ask how they’re doing. It’s an “easy” conversation and we know the kinds of things to say! However, if someone is off because they’re struggling with their mental health, it can be harder to find the right words. And whilst you might want to offer a colleague support, it’s very common to feel worried about saying the wrong thing.

We’ve pulled together some top tips you can use to talk about mental health at work and help a colleague feel heard and supported.

You don’t need to be a mental health professional to offer support to a colleague in need. You also don’t need to give advice, feel pressure to make someone feel better, or say the exact right thing. All you need to do is to provide a space for them to feel accepted and understood.

1) Create the right environment

If you're going to approach a colleague or if they have approached you, make sure you have enough time to have a conversation with them. Find a quiet space where you will be uninterrupted. Try to bench anything that’s going on for you so you can give them your full attention.

2) Listen

You might feel worried about what to say if you're talking to a colleague about their mental health. Instead of worrying, try to focus on listening. Listening instantly removes the pressure on you to talk or to “know the answer”. It’s also one of the most supportive and helpful things you can do for someone.

3) Ask open questions

Open questions are a great way to encourage someone to open up and talk more about how they’re feeling. An open question is one that doesn’t lend itself to a yes or no answer. For example, “how are you feeling today?”, “what’s that like for you?” or “can you tell me more about that?” are all open questions.

4) Practise reflective listening

One of the best ways of making sure you’re really hearing a colleague is to try and reflect back to them what they have said using your own words.

“It sounds like you’re really struggling with your workload at the moment and feeling that it’s all getting on top of you, is that right?”

By reflecting back, you’re showing them that you understand them and really get what they're saying.

5) Demonstrate empathy

A key tool for supporting someone is demonstrating empathy. Just by saying something like “that sounds really tough” or “that must feel really exhausting”, you can show a colleague that you care. It also lets them know that you are listening and understand things from their perspective. This can be a really validating experience - letting someone know that it's ok to feel the way that they do.

6) Use a non-judgemental approach

It takes great courage to open up. Do your best to remain neutral, and don’t judge. For example, if a colleague tells you they are using alcohol or drugs to cope, don’t panic. Take a breath and give them the space to open up.

7) Set boundaries

It’s ok to set boundaries and say if you don’t feel able to support a colleague. You might want to suggest they speak to their manager or their doctor or signpost them to any mental health support options you have in your workplace.

Talking about how you really feel isn’t easy. TalkLife Workplace is a safe, anonymous community where employees can share when they're struggling with their mental health. Click here to find out how TalkLife Workspace can help you.


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