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National Conversation Week 2023: Time to talk mental health

Onebright’s Dr Julia Lyons provides insights on how best to develop positive conversations around mental health in the workplace.

National Conversation Week 23 and 29 May is a reminder that workplaces need to become more comfortable  places to ask questions. Encouraging conversations in the workplace can be of great benefit to employees who need support with their mental health.

As many as one in six employees require help with their mental health through their employer, and by not providing the right support, businesses are likely to experience an increase in absenteeism, presenteeism, staff turnover, as well as having cost implications for the organisation.

It is important for all businesses to provide a safe environment for individuals to talk about their health without stigma attached. This starts with having an open and trusting workplace culture, where talking about your mental health is normalised and respected.

If you are unsure about how best to encourage and start conversations in your workplace, or want to know more about how you can support employee mental health, here are some initiatives you can implement.

Listen & Educate
It can be challenging for someone to open up about how they’re truly feeling. If an employee decides to talk to you about their thoughts and feelings, avoid making assumptions and offer a supportive space for them to do so. Sometimes the most significant step of all is for them to admit how they are feeling to someone, especially if they have been battling with their problems alone for a while.

Listen intently, be patient and educate yourself on what they may be dealing with. Psychoeducation is often the starting point in the person’s recovery, so it can help if you are more informed about their issues too. Remember you are not taking the role of a counsellor or therapist; explain the avenues available for them to seek professional help and encourage them to do so at the earliest opportunity. The earlier they seek help the easier it will be for them to get back on track.

Spot the signs
Be attentive to any signs that may signal that employees are struggling to cope. For example, employees may be isolating themselves from colleagues and have stopped responding to work emails or calls, or they may be irritable, pessimistic or avoiding opportunities for development. These behaviours may indicate that they are in a difficult place. If you notice that they are struggling with their work relationships or workload, it’s crucial to encourage them to seek help.

Don’t treat anyone differently
If someone is experiencing mental health difficulties, they might already be feeling uncomfortable, confused, and sometimes misunderstood. Treating people differently may make them feel worse. People often easily pick up on any change of approach, so where possible, carry on communicating with them as you would normally, keeping an employee informed and included in steps you are taking to support them.

Be careful with your vocabulary
Be aware of phrases or words that are so often intertwined with mental health but might create a barrier to someone opening up if used inappropriately. An example would be “I’m so OCD about my desk”, which is essentially a throwaway comment said in response to keeping a tidy desk. However Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a complex condition, which can significantly impact an individual’s functioning, anxiety levels, and mood. This type of comment would be quite uncomfortable for someone who may be struggling with OCD. It’s about considering the language you use around mental health, especially to the person who may be struggling with it.

The benefits of workplace mental health training?
Training helps everyone from line managers to executive leaders learn the tools for providing a great workplace culture around mental health. There is an opportunity to learn about the principles of early identification and understand how CBT evidence-based interventions can be implemented to support employees. This will help to remove taboos surrounding mental health, which is vital to early detection and future-proofing employee mental wellbeing.

Other ways to support employees

Tea & Chat 
By creating opportunities for connection between employees we can improve their wellbeing. Set up a weekly tea and chat meeting for teams and departments to attend outside of their usual break times. We recommend setting this up in a comfortable environment and don’t forget you can do an online meeting too if your team is remote. Grab some refreshments, perhaps get outside, and talk about something neutral. Don’t discuss work.

Conversation starters:        

  • Talk about hobbies
  • Talk about weekend or after work plans
  • Ask what made people smile today
  • Speak about any new books, films or TV series
  • Discuss favourite foods and recipes

Appoint a mental health champion
Enrol one person (or multiple people if you have a big team) to become your mental health champions. All businesses have first aiders who you can go to in case of a physical medical issue, but many organisations still lag behind in providing mental health champions and first aiders who people can talk to and confide in.

By providing professionally delivered mental health training to your champions, you can develop mental health activities and peer-to-peer network support within your organisation, with mental health first aiders you are creating an environment in which the individual may feel more comfortable to discuss any issues they may be having and you can be reassured that the individuals are being signposted to the appropriate support channels.

Taking the time to listen to employees, introducing mental health champions, and offering time to talk while working remotely are some helpful ways to encourage conversations on mental health at work.

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