Managing sensitive workplace conversations

Daniel Stander explains how employers can effectively hold discussions on mental health with staff to ward off potential tribunal claims

Managing sensitive workplace conversations

In a more remote and disparate workplace, employers – in particular, line managers – play a vital role in spotting signs and symptoms of mental health issues developing or worsening and providing early intervention. Given a business’s legal duty to ensure the mental wellbeing of its workforce, the question arises as to how to effectively hold difficult and sensitive conversations with employees to help minimise the risk of issues arising and claims being brought.

Mental health first aid training

Line managers are on the frontline of communication between employees and their employers. To be able to effectively communicate with their direct reports, organisations need to ensure that managers are adequately trained and equipped to be able to lean in to conversations around mental health without hesitation or fear of making matters worse. This can often come from a lack of awareness around understanding how to recognise mental wellbeing issues and what effective supports are available. It is the same principle as for any physical first aid course. An individual will learn an action plan to give them the best opportunity to operate in a responsive and responsible way to give help where needed. 

Changing the culture

Although significant advances are taking place to help rid the workplace of stigma and discrimination, including campaigns such as ‘This is Me’ where employees are encouraged to comfortably speak out about their personal experiences of mental health, it is still an area where people may feel reluctant to come forward because of perceived negative effects of doing so. A lack of trust and confidence that they will be heard and treated with dignity remains a sticking point to effective communication at work. It is therefore critical that employers lead from the top and obtain buy-in from board level down to promote an inclusive and open culture at all levels. Like other workplace issues (such as diversity and inclusion), it is important that addressing mental health and wellbeing is not seen as just another HR initiative but is part of a company-wide cultural change to break the stigma. 

It is also important that managers themselves lead from the front and practise some self-care of their own. If they can lead by example and talk about their own experiences of mental health, it might help others open up where they would otherwise stay quiet. By taking this step, employers can obviate the risks of presenteeism and absence issues down the line. 

Tips on holding an effective conversation

Approach

If a line manager notices a change in someone’s behaviour or has concerns that a person is in a crisis, using everyday management procedures like a check-in or one to one can be a great way to initiate a conversation. Doing so will not always yield immediate results, yet asking someone how they are feeling and what they are most or least enjoying at the moment, while maintaining respect for the person’s privacy and culture, is important. 

Listen non-judgmentally

Being able to communicate effectively means really hearing and understanding what is being said and creating a space for someone else to feel comfortable talking freely about their issues without being judged. Managers are not expected to provide medical diagnosis or therapy. Indeed, from an employment law perspective this is not recommended as they are not medical professionals. Instead, it is about listening and communicating non-judgmentally to help support someone experiencing a mental health issue until professional help is obtained.   

Give support and information

Once an employee feels listened to, it can be appropriate to provide emotional support and acknowledge the person’s feelings, while giving them hope of a successful recovery. Managers can also ensure that employees are aware of where to find mental health support information both within the business and via external resources.

Daniel Stander is an employment lawyer and certified mental health first aider at Vedder Price