Safety, Health and Wellbeing

How to talk about mental health in the workplace

Our role is to develop and assist in the implementation of the UWA safety, health and wellbeing programs in order to minimise the risk of injury, illness and property damage.

We provide consultancy and other services to promote best practice and legislative compliance in all University and related activities.

This page provides guidance for managers on how to approach and address staff who may be experiencing mental health issues.

Initiating a discussion

If you observe a change in the behaviour or mood of an employee consider whether it is something ongoing, and if so, whether it is impacting on their functioning. It is important to approach them to talk about what you've observed openly and respectfully before implementing any change to work duties or tasks. Don't be afraid to initiate a discussion early on, rather than waiting for the situation to either resolve itself or become a bigger issue. 

Approach them sensitively – time, place, language 

Neither of you should feel rushed, nor likely to be interrupted. Choose a time when you are able to dedicate your full attention to the person and you can listen to and connect with them. Early in the work week and early in the work shift are ideal. This enables you time to initiate the conversation and if necessary, take a break and come back together to finish the conversation before the employee leaves work for the day or week.

Choose a private place to talk, and where possible, take it away from the central hub of the workplace. This should include privacy before and after the meeting, so consider a room or area with more than one entry/exit point. 

The language that you use is critical. You have the best chance of engaging positively with the person if your language is respectful and non-judgmental. Inappropriate language can increase stigma and prejudice. It can also increase misunderstanding, feed negative stereotypes and make a vulnerable person feel more isolated, misunderstood and hopeless.  

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Having the conversation - Key steps

workplace meeting

There are four key steps to having an effective conversation on what can be a sensitive topic.

Before you have the conversation with the employee consider whether your observations and concerns are related to their work performance or to their personal wellbeing. This will then determine the boundaries and likely outcomes of the conversation. If your issue is of personal concern only, you can choose to raise your concerns with the employee yet not go further if the employee does not want to discuss the issue with you.

Step 2: "I've noticed..."

Describe what you've noticed that has led to these concerns. Keep your observations objective and measurable - you should not attempt to give them a diagnosis or just state your judgements and opinions. Outline the observed change in their behaviour or simply say: “I’ve noticed ...”. Only focus on their behaviour, and not your interpretations of what this behaviour might mean. 

Step 3: "Have you noticed...?"

Asking an employee “Have you noticed...?”  or “Is that true for you?” or ‘Is there something going on with that?” gives them an opportunity to connect with you if they choose to do so. It helps them to clarify if you are on the right track or if there is some other reason for their behavioural changes. 

Step 4: Zip It

  • The final step in the process involves you not saying anything: ‘Zip It!’ Many people find this the most difficult stage of the process, but it is vital that you let the person find, organise and relay their thoughts to you, if they so choose. You sometimes need to be silent for twice as long as you think is socially appropriate, to allow the person to catch up to you with their thoughts, and to decide what they are willing and comfortable to disclose in this situation.

Example: Personal concern:

“This has nothing to do with your work performance, however I have noticed a few things lately and I’m wondering if you’re doing ok? I’ve noticed  … x y z (observable /measurable). I was wondering if you’ve noticed a pattern with this as well, and if there might be something behind it?” 

Example: Professional concern: 

“I want to discuss with you a few things that I have observed lately. This is related to your work performance, however I want to offer you support if you need it before we deal with the performance issues. I have noticed a few things lately and I’m wondering if you’re doing ok? I’ve noticed  … x y z (observable /measurable). I was wondering if you’ve noticed a pattern with this as well, and if there might be something behind it?”

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What to do next 

If the person does open up and talk to you about what is happening, your goal shouldn’t be to counsel them or come up with solutions. Generally, if it was that simple to resolve they would have worked it out for themselves. Your goal is to connect with them, show compassion and empathy, and guide them towards support.

Asking them the following questions may help you with this:

  • Does anyone else know how you are feeling?
  • Are you currently getting any support or help with this?
  • Have you thought of what might be helpful for you?
  • Is there anything you can think of that I can do to help?

If they do not disclose anything and your concerns are related to work performance:

  • Give them time to think about the concerns you have raised and reconvene after a break
  • Give them the option of having a support person with them in the meeting
  • Seek support from Human Resources or the Manager Hotline if you are still not sure how to proceed
  • Address each of the performance issues.
If at any point you have concerns about someone’s immediate safety or risk of suicide then you should refer to the Mental Health Emergency Response procedure immediately.

Your role is to engage with the employee, support them to make reasonable adjustments within the workplace and to seek other supports as necessary. Your role is not to provide all of that support yourself. You need to be confident to set clear boundaries around the support you can provide and encourage them to seek help from internal and external supports as required. If you provide the names and contact details of these services they are more likely to engage with them, so do so with confidence. 

If they do not disclose anything and your concerns are related to their personal wellbeing advise that you are available in the future should they wish to. If you are concerned about their wellbeing and safety contact Human Resources, the Manager Hotline (available through UWA's external Employee Assistance Program provider) or follow the Mental Health Emergency Response procedure as required.

Don’t diagnose – validate

Your goal for this discussion is not to diagnose someone or provide therapy. The goal is to connect with them about their experience, and to support them to understand that mental health problems are common and that there is help available. Avoid using diagnostic terms, or offering medical or psychological opinions unless you are qualified to do so. You want to validate that their experience is real for them and reassure them that there is help available.  

Saying things such as “It’s not that bad. You’re just making a mountain out of a molehill”  is not helpful, nor respectful. Instead say something that validates their perspective, even if you don’t understand it. Consider: “I’m so sorry that is what’s happening for you. That sounds really difficult”.

Do with, not to

Don’t be tempted to offer advice and opinions on what you think the person needs to do. In doing this you risk not connecting with the person and may disempower them from doing the right thing for themselves. Instead, offer information on a range of supports that are available (research this information before you have the discussion), and help the person to clarify their various options. Then allow them to make a decision as to how they wish to proceed and who they want to have involved in this process.

If your observations are indicating a work performance issue you need to frame the conversation as being related to professional concern. You are providing the employee with the opportunity to raise any issues that may have affected their work performance. If they do so then you can discuss possible adjustments with them. If they choose not to discuss any contributing issues then you will still need to deal with the performance issues

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Having a conversation - online videos 

These following videos from beyondblue provide demonstrations of how to approach or talk in more depth to an employee you're concerned about:

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