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Having sensitive mental health conversations in the workplace

As mental health has grown to be an important topic in the workplace, it’s still often a conversation which can leave leaders fearful about what to say. Having sensitive mental health conversations can be tricky to navigate. They can evoke high emotions which commonly leads to avoidance around engaging in such conversations. However, when an issue is not addressed, a small issue usually becomes a bigger one.

As a leader, undoubtedly you will be required to have sensitive mental health conversations. Developing your leadership capabilities can help to build the practical skills and confidence to address and manage these conversations early on to cultivate understanding, resolve issues and support the mental health and wellbeing of your employees.

Tips to remember when engaging in sensitive mental health conversations

When approaching these conversations, you may be met with a positive reaction whereby the individual is relieved you have reached out to them, or you may be met with a range of negative responses or emotional reactions. These may include sadness, anxiety, denial, frustration, anger, or confusion. Understanding the common reactions that you may be faced with can help you to best learn how to communicate supportively and empathically to assist the person in getting back on track. It’s important that you handle these conversations with care and consideration. Creating an environment of psychological safety where employees feel valued, heard, cared for and understood helps to create the perfect setting to engage in these discussions.

Model for engaging in sensitive mental health conversations 

Initiate the conversation:

When initiating the conversation, start with an expression of care and concern followed by an observation of their behaviour. Make sure you use caring language and ask open ended questions so you can understand the key issue to best support their wellbeing. For example:  

  • “You don’t seem yourself lately, how are things for you at the moment?”  
  • “I know you have a lot going on right now, just checking in to see how you are? ”

Address the emotions:

When emotions are heightened, it can be hard for people to think clearly and rationally. It’s important to acknowledge and respect the other persons emotions. Addressing the emotions first through empathy and active listening skills can help to make the person feel heard and understood whilst shifting to a clam and rational brain.

Listen to understand:

It’s important to acknowledge and validate the person’s feelings and emotions. Expressing empathy can help you to better understand how others are feeling so you can respond appropriately. It’s also equally important to keep your own emotions in check during these conversations and simply hear them out.

Agree on next steps:

Agree on the next steps moving forward and discuss what you can do to support the person. Raise awareness of the professional supports available to them. Reiterate the use of EAP as a confidential counselling service.

End the conversation:

Summarise where you and the person are at. Clarify the agreed actions and next steps. Thank the person for being open with you and continue to check-in on them.

Performance management for an employee with a mental health condition

A difficult topic of discussion we see arising is engaging in conversations around performance management for employees with a mental health concern / condition. When a mental health condition is present, it’s important to separate performance management and mental health. Mental health must be addressed first! Engage in a wellbeing conversation following the steps identified above and together formulate a plan. Areas you should consider in your discussion include:

  • What is their current situation?
  • What areas are they struggling with?
  • What reasonable adjustments can be offered? These should be set for a period of time and reviewed regularly. They also need to be considerate of the context and impact on others.
  • Have you consulted with any treating professionals? What have they recommended in terms of the treatment and recovery?
  • Raise awareness of the professional supports available to them.

When you identify these issues early on and are aware of their situation, it can be a lot easier to manage and eliminate the problem which may be causing the performance gap. Remember that focusing on mental health can lead to positive performance outcomes. Good mental health and wellbeing can increase productivity, improve clarity and thinking, enhance problem solving and critical thinking skills contributing to better job performance.

For more information on how to build your leaders capabilities in having sensitive conversations, contact our learning and wellbeing culture team at

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