Starting a conversation about mental health in the workplace

Thursday, April 8 2021
Written By: Poppy Millett
It can be difficult to know where or how to start a conversation about mental health at work. Here's how...


How often do we read that the best way to address mental health in the workplace is simply talking about it?There’s no doubt that being able to talk about mental health at work, whether it’s speaking about your own experience or broaching a conversation with a colleague you’re concerned about, can help towards resolving issues (especially if it’s the work environment that’s contributing to one’s negative metal health) and empower people to access further support.

But it’s also an area that’s fraught with its own challenges.

Mental ill-health has been misunderstood and stigmatised to such an extent that, even today when there’s so much more awareness and compassion around the subject, it’s difficult to know where or how to start that conversation.

But start we must, because poor mental health in the workplace is an issue that is becoming increasingly common, with 828,000 reported cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2019/2020.

As a result, businesses need to meet those challenges through educating their team leaders and HR staff on mental health and by introducing support practices, policies and networks that safeguard employee welfare.


Mental health and business - the bottom line

Apart from the human impact of poor mental health on the individual, which in and of itself is a compelling and vital argument for investing in employee wellbeing, poor mental health in the workplace is also bad for business.

According to statistics published by the Mental Health Foundation, around 1 in 7 people in full-time employment suffer with poor mental health at work. Of those, the majority will be women, who are twice as likely as men to report poor mental health to their employer experience poor mental health in the workplace.

The Foundation also estimates that 70 million working days are lost to British businesses in the course of an average year. It doesn’t require a degree in maths to see the financial impact on business.


Safety first mental health legislation

According to statistics published by Forbes last summer, around half of all employees would be scared to discuss their mental health with their manager.

There exists a lingering sense that admitting to struggling with your emotional health will be bad for your career. Unfortunately, discrimination still occurs in workplaces – from penalising individuals for taking sick days, to not putting employees with known mental illness forward for certain opportunities.

Therefore, workplaces must work in earnest towards creating safe spaces for these conversations to occur, listen (without judgement) to employees’ concerns and build-in policies to ensure discrimination cannot take place.


How to start conversations about mental health:


Regular contact can help protect mental health

Staying in regular contact with the colleagues you lead is a good way to maintain a barometer on their emotional health – and that’s especially important where we continue to work from home.

It’s easier to recognise and deal with problems if you have regular touch points with people through the working week – even if that’s just an informal chat over a virtual coffee.


preventative mental health strategiesRecognising the signs of poor mental health

It goes without saying that poor mental health isn’t always easy to identify. It’s not something that always displays clear symptoms, but there are physical and behavioural signs that can suggest things may not be right for someone.

Physical signs can include obvious lethargy or tiredness, a lack of care about appearance, sudden unexplained weight gain or weight loss or frequent minor illness.

Behavioural signs of someone struggling with their mental health may include sudden mood swings, loss of tolerance or temper, loss of confidence or obvious addictive behaviour.

It’s important to be aware that we’re all allowed to have an off day occasionally, but if someone is persistently behaving out of character, they could be struggling.


How do I know when to intervene?

This isn’t a binary issue. In the end, instinct plays a key role deal when deciding how best to approach the issue of someone’s mental health.

The principle of ALGEE can help here. ALGEE is an acronym used in Mental Health First Aid England’s training that helps you to assess whether someone is at risk of harm and then navigate a conversation with them if appropriate.

It stands for ASSESS (risk), LISTEN (non-judgmentally), GIVE (information), ENCOURAGE (professional help), and ENCOURAGE again (self-help). You can find out more about these principles and putting them into practice as part of an accredited Mental Health First Aid course.


Remember these points

  • Start the conversation differently.

We’re all naturally inclined to say we’re fine when someone asks if we’re okay, so consider opening with an observation about their mood or behaviour – ‘I’ve noticed that … is everything okay?’.

  • Ask twice.

Often, we’ll deflect a question the first time. But if you ask a second time – ‘Are you sure everything is okay?’ – you’re giving someone the second opportunity they may need to share how they feel.

  • Listen actively, but don’t judge.

Repeat what you’ve heard so they know they’ve been heard, but don’t offer an opinion or judgment on what they’ve said.

  • Share your experiences.

A common characteristic of poor mental health is that we feel we’re the only person who has felt what we feel or can understand how and why we feel like we do. By opening up on your own experiences, you reduce that sense of isolation.

  • You’re not trying to fix the problem.

No one expects you to have the answers, nor should you feel as though you have to solve the problem for them. In fact, unless you are a qualified therapist or counsellor it may be irresponsible to give advice at all. Positive encouragement to talk to someone who has the skills to help (which may include someone in a pastoral role within the company) or to explore some options around self-help is all you need to do.



And remember – starting a conversation is only the first step in improving mental health in the workplace.

Tackling mental health at work may seem daunting but is entirely possible. If you or your businesses needs help in identifying strategies and training to deal with mental health issues in the workplace, why not get in touch and see how we can help?

Get in touch with Luminate at or 0203 637 7417.

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