Mental Health at Work

Having Mental Health conversations with staff

Having mental health conversations with staff can be one of the most difficult conversations that anyone has to go through during their career as a manager of people. But it doesn’t have to be.

Having Mental Health conversations with staff. Illustration of 2 people talking.

Trying to explain your mental health to a colleague who is not your close friend or family can present you with feelings of fear and anxiety, both before and after the conversations. Trying to have a conversation about someone else’s mental health can also be hugely difficult – especially when you are their boss and they work for you.

There are a few key areas to focus on in terms of being able to have effective conversations about mental health with your staff. How do you do it?

How to build a work culture that supports mental health

Ideally, we want to focus earlier in the process. It’s easier to have conversations about mental health if you have already built a culture at work that supports mental health and open conversations about it.

Check your workplace sickness policy and procedure to see if it makes reference to mental health, and if not, add some information in there to explicitly reference it. It’s common for staff to wonder are mental health days sick days?

If your workplace policy is clear that mental health and physical health are both important and if it offers a clear and simple way for people to report their mental health sickness days then you will have already made the process easier.

Use annual mental health events like World Mental Health Day and Mental Health Awareness Week to raise awareness about positive mental health and to give permission to discuss mental health within the office without it being considered a taboo subject.

How to have a conversation about mental health with staff

It’s actually surprisingly easy to start a conversation about mental health with someone by simply asking “how are you today?” and really listening to the answer. Don’t ask in a throwaway manner or just in passing, but take a moment each day to ask the people around you how they are and listen to what they say and how they say it.

Don’t be afraid to follow-up with a question such as “how does that feel to you?” or to say something supportive and enabling such as the ‘feel felt found‘ method “thank you for telling me how you feel, I know that when other people have felt that way that they have found that by talking about it, it can help them. Let me know how I can help and I will think about that too.”

Remember that talking is one of the most commonly recommended therapies for mental health challenges.

How to support staff with mental health challenges

When a member of staff returns to work after a period of sickness, it’s normal to have a return to work interview whereby you can explore different options of support for them and any adaptions that may need to be made.

By law, employers must make “reasonable adjustments” for workers with disabilities or long-term physical or mental conditions. This could mean giving someone with social anxiety their own desk rather than expecting them to hot desk, for example.


If possible, it might be a good idea to suggest coming back towards the end of a week, so that they only have a couple of days at work before they get the weekend to recover.

It can also be supportive to offer them flexible hours for a period of time to help them work in line with their energy levels and to ensure they are working when most productive for both their sake and that of the business. It’s important to note that some medication can make it challenging to get up in the morning and a later start at work can help.

It can also be useful to assign that person a workplace buddy (this can be a good idea for everyone at all times!). To be able to have someone else that they can confidentially confide in (confidentiality subject to safeguarding procedures).

Having a respite area or a quiet area where staff can retreat to if they need a moment of calm during the day can also be constructive, so if space allows it – you could make a ‘calm area’ a permanent space at work.

Talk about how although there is a structure in place to help their return to work, that there will be a regular review with them to see if the support is working and to discuss and consider other options that may help.

There is more information about returning to work after a mental health sickness period from the NHS website.

How to build mental health resilience in your workforce

Building resilience in your workforce is important as a preventative measure to help avoid workplace sickness from mental health or to reduce the frequency or severity of any mental-health-related sickness.

Ask your staff what causes them the most stress in their lives, both at home and in the workplace. Run an annual staff survey so that you can track the triggers of stress over time.

Engage and train your leadership team. Making sure that mental health is understood and supported from the top down can go a long way in making a mental-health-friendly work environment.

Show commitment to supporting your employees through engaging with mental health events and campaigns. Appoint and train a mental health champion to take charge of coordinating activities and communications.

Check your management styles through the organisation; allow autonomy where possible, recognise and reward good work so that people feel valued. Allow flexibility where possible to allow people to adapt to their needs whilst still delivering the work they are employed for. And be clear about expectations; make sure that both you and they both know what is and isn’t expected of them. Anxiety and conflict can stem from ‘grey areas’ of misunderstanding.

This article was last updated: 8 November 2020