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CCIWA Mental Health Kit: Part 4 – How to have a conversation

By CCIWA Editor 

Initiating a conversation with an employee about their mental health can be extremely difficult, but is an important step in managing their issues.

Here, we outline what to consider when broaching the topic of mental health with staff.

As a supervisor or manager, you play a critical role in your employees’ work life. You have been there from the start (recruitment and induction) and are responsible for regular supervision and management. As a result of this, you are well placed to notice changes in an employee’s behaviour. If you know your people, you can quickly spot changes in behaviour that may

be an early sign of mental health issues such as: avoidance of previously enjoyable work activities, increased difficulty in meeting ‘normal’ deadlines or appearing tense and tired.

Where the following is outside the norm for an employee:

  • performance/productivity issues;
  • interpersonal conflict;
  • a colleague has raised a concern;
  • mood changes;
  • changes in appearance (i.e. looking drawn, tense, tired or dishevelled, weight gain/loss); and
  • avoidance of previously enjoyable work activities.

It is important to remember that you aren’t trying to diagnose a condition, rather you have picked up on behaviour ‘out of the norm’ for this person and are trying to be proactive in supporting them.

For your own peace of mind, and to make the conversation easier, you need to know what organisational or other resources are available.

TIP: Regular meetings with all employees should be a part of day to day good management practice. They allow for  discussion regarding work performance and an opportunity for managers to raise any concerns for an employee’s wellbeing. They also provide a confidential environment for an employee to raise health and wellbeing problems or concerns they may have. Some employees may choose to disclose their health issues, while others may not.

  • Find out what help is available within your workplace i.e. do you have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)? Do you have mental health first aiders, a nurse or injury management coordinator? Do you have a relationship with an occupational medical practice?
  • Think about the most appropriate time and place. Don’t ambush an employee, give them enough notice to mentally prepare, but not enough to start to worry over the conversation. If it takes them away from time sensitive duties or would increase their work burden – can you have someone else cover them?
  • Find somewhere private where the person will feel comfortable and, on the chance they become emotional, somewhere they won’t feel embarrassed.
  • What is the purpose of the meeting? Like preparing for a performance management meeting, it may help to write down the behaviours or issues you have observed that you are concerned about. If the conversation stalls or is slow to start, outlining your observations can help you prepare open questions.
  • What positive things can you highlight? Can you reassure the employee by praising their skills, or highlighting that they’re a long-time and loyal employee of the company?

Having a conversation with an employee when it relates to their behaviour or a potential mental health issue can be daunting – but it doesn’t have to be. Here are some DO’s and DON’Ts to assist:

DO proactively initiate the conversation. DON’T wait for things to get better or assume the problem will go away.

DON’T make assumptions; in particular don’t assume the employee has a medical condition.

DO use appropriate language. Use words like “I have noticed…I’m concerned”.

DON’T ask whether your employee has a mental health condition or what their doctor’s diagnosis is.

DO ask your employee if they require assistance before providing it.

DO reassure the employee you will keep the conversation private and confidential.

DO monitor your own and your employee’s body language. DON’T use intimidating or untrustworthy body language such as crossing arms and legs or avoiding eye contact.

DON’T respond in anger if your employee becomes angered.

DO give the employee a break or stop and revisit the conversation where appropriate if your employee becomes too emotional.

DO maintain clear professional boundaries when offering support.

DO articulate an outcome from the conversation whether it is that you don’t need to action anything at this stage or you will explore reasonable adjustment options.

From this conversation there are broadly two outcomes: the employee will deny any workplace issues and reject any workplace support or they acknowledge some workplace issues.

It is important to note information can be disclosed if there is a serious or imminent threat to the health and safety of the employee concerned and/ or anyone else associated, such as colleagues and other staff.

They:

  • Can successfully manage their job and role demands.
  • Have developed support structures outside the workplace.
  • May think their manager has preset and unrealistic beliefs or attitudes about people with mental health issues.
  • May not personally acknowledge they have an issue.
  • May be coming to terms with a new diagnosis.
  • May be afraid of being treated differently.
  • May have had a past experience of being discriminated against.
  • May be afraid people will see them as a liability or burden.
  • May be afraid that they will be overlooked for promotions or other work- related opportunities.
  • May be afraid that they will lose their job.

If the employee denies any workplace issues and dismisses their behaviour as ‘I’m just having a bad day’ or says ‘I’m just going through some personal problems, I’m fine’ – let them know you are available at any time for assistance. Most importantly monitor their behaviour to see if the issues resolve or continue.

An employee may choose not to disclose a mental health condition, even when it is evident they are not coping in the workplace.

Your principal responsibility in this situation is to:

  • determine whether any reasonable workplace adjustments can be made, based on your observations of the employees performance (without needing them to formally disclose their mental illness);
  • consider OSH requirements; and consider privacy principles.

In some situations, an employee who has not disclosed their mental illness will limit or even prevent you from providing reasonable adjustments or support

Maintaining privacy and confidentiality is important.

Do not tell others in the workplace about an employee’s mental health condition unless the employee has agreed that you can do so.

If the issues continue you may consider having another conversation or in some instances performance management may be appropriate.

If there is a health and safety risk 

If the employee poses a health and safety risk to themselves or others by remaining in the workplace or continuing with their work duties, you have a duty of care to maintain a safe work environment. Intervention can vary depending on the nature and severity of risk.

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For advice and guidance on work, health and safety matters contact CCIWA’s Employee Relations Advice Centre on (08) 9365 7660 or email advice@cciwa.com.

As a supervisor or manager, you play a critical role in your employees’ work life.

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