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Talking About Mental Health with Workers

One in four people in the UK will have mental ill-health

Research by the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) suggests one in four people in the UK will have mental ill-health at some point and that prolonged work-related stress can lead to both physical and psychological damage, including anxiety and depression.

Whether work is causing the health issue or aggravating it, organisations in many countries have a legal responsibility to help their workers.

However, talking about mental health with colleagues can be challenging. Many people with mental ill-health can face stigma and prejudice, and so fear the consequences of talking about it. As a result, workers may not seek or receive the support they need.

It is important to know that people with mental ill-health can and do work; most are in employment and the organisation employing them will not necessarily be aware of any mental ill-health symptoms or experiences.

IOSH’s Managing Occupational Health and Wellbeing course, designed to create healthier and more productive places of work, recommends that one way of improving mental ill-health within the workplace can come from managers having a conversation with a team member on a one-to-one basis.

"it is important to know that people with mental ill-health can and do work"

Some key ways in which organisations can talk about mental health with their workers on a one-to-one basis include:

  1. Choosing an appropriate place. This should be somewhere private and quiet. The person needs to be in an environment that will put them at ease – this could be somewhere at work or a neutral place outside of work.
  2. Encourage people to talk. It can be difficult to talk about mental health. Asking simple open questions and letting people speak about their issues in their own words will help. Ask what they think may be causing their feelings, how it affects their life and their ability to work, and what support they are getting or need.
  3. Don’t make assumptions. The person may not need help or may feel they are able to manage the mental ill-health symptoms themselves. They may just need support every now and again when they are going through a difficult period.
  4. Listen to workers and respond flexibly. Make sure that the person, and not their problem, is the focus. Adapt the support to suit them and make sure that they are involved in finding solutions to any work-related difficulties they have. Being aware of different types of workplace adjustments that you could offer before you have conversations will enable you to offer suggestions.
  5. Be honest and clear. If there are concerns about high absence levels or low performance, these need to be addressed at an early stage.
  6. Ensure confidentiality. Workers need to feel that anything they say will be kept as confidential as possible and in accordance with any data protection laws. Ask them if you can share the information with specific people, e.g. Human Resources (HR), and make sure you get their agreement to do so.
  7. Develop an action plan. An individual plan can help to identify a worker’s mental ill-health, what their triggers are, possible impacts on work, who to contact in a crisis and what support they need. The plan also needs to specify review dates so that any support measures put in place can be monitored to see if they are working.
  8. Encourage workers to seek advice and support. A person should be encouraged to seek help themselves if they haven’t already. Many organisations have employee/worker assistance programmes (EAP) that can offer counselling, or helplines.
  9. Seek advice and support yourself. If you feel unable to support the employee or need advice on how to help, seek advice from HR or occupational health.
  10. Reassure workers. Remember that people may not want to talk straight away. If they don’t, it’s important to let them know what support is available and that whenever they feel able to talk, you will make sure that they get the support they need.

The benefits of promoting a mental wellbeing strategy at work are improved commitment to the organisation and improved work performance, as well as reduced sickness absence and presenteeism.

IOSH's Managing Occupational Health and Wellbeing course recently received high praise from business leaders after being delivered by an award-winning health and training provider. The course provides practical advice and tools for managers, helping them understand why it is important to manage fluctuations in workers’ health, what the causes of ill-health can be and how to recognise when employees may be unwell.

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IOSH is the Chartered body for health and safety professionals. With more than 47,000 members in over 130 countries, we’re the world’s biggest professional health and safety organisation.