We need to get better at talking about mental health during appraisals

Performance conversations are the perfect opportunity to check in about psychological wellbeing, says Harry Bliss, but many managers lack the knowledge and confidence

The workplace health challenges facing ourselves and our organisations have changed significantly over the last two years, but one thing has remained consistent: the pandemic. It’s unsurprising that Covid-19 has had a negative effect on the mental wellbeing of our employees – but the data is hard-hitting, nonetheless.

We recently launched The Workplace Health Report: 2022, which found that 58 per cent of working professionals are experiencing at least mild symptoms of anxiety; 52 per cent are experiencing symptoms of depression; and 67 per cent are experiencing moderate to high levels of stress.

Clearly, we need to do more to support our employees, through the pandemic and beyond. And while there is no one-size-fits-all approach, having open and honest conversations about mental health is essential to this. 

A quick word on culture

In my experience, staff appraisals lend themselves to these conversations, as employees are far more likely to disclose any struggles they are having in a one-to-one environment. However, you need to first take stock of your own organisational culture. If you’re not already talking openly about mental health, then raising that question in a staff appraisal is likely to backfire. Put simply, employees need to feel that if they say they’re struggling, they will be listened to and appropriately supported. If you’re satisfied that’s true, you can move on to facilitating open and honest conversations surrounding mental wellbeing during staff appraisals. 

How to lead a mental health conversation during a staff appraisal

It can be difficult to lead a conversation around mental health, but it’s always best to start by asking open questions. I’ve found that if you ask a question that invites a one-word answer, then that’s probably what you’ll get. But if you ask open-ended questions, and ask them with authenticity, your employees will go into greater depth about how they’re feeling.

If you do get an answer like “fine”, then ask the question again. Research by Time to Change showed that three in four people will say they’re fine even when they’re not, so it’s always worth asking twice. Simply asking again, with interest, could lead to your employee disclosing an issue they would otherwise have kept hidden.

After you ask any question, make sure you’re actively listening to the answer. This doesn’t just mean hearing what someone has to say – it means understanding things from their point of view. This will help your employee feel validated, heard, and understood. It will also enable you to see their situation from a more empathetic viewpoint.

Your people also need to feel that they can talk to you in complete confidentiality, and without the risk of their career being harmed. Make it clear that anything said stays between you and them and will not affect how they are viewed within the workplace.

However, confidentiality has its limits, which are reached when a person is at risk of harming themselves. This might feel like something that can never happen, but our data revels that around one in 12 employees are currently experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm. 

Finally, it’s important to acknowledge your own support boundaries. If your employee tells you that they are struggling, you’re not expected to have all the answers. So, don’t worry about giving advice on areas that you’re not qualified to assist with. Instead, direct your energy into listening to your employee, supporting them, and if necessary, encouraging them to seek more qualified help. There are many services you can signpost on to, like your organisation’s internal wellbeing offering. If you feel they need external help, then recommend support from therapy services or charities. 

Showing you care will go a long way

Leading a conversation about mental health can be daunting but doing so effectively could be life-changing for one of your employees. Staff appraisals are a great chance to show your colleagues that you care, you’re there for them and you want to help. Take that opportunity.

Harry Bliss is co-founder and CEO of Champion Health