Many organisations are encouraging employees to open up about mental health concerns they have, but this can sometimes do more harm than good if HR or line managers are not sufficiently trained in handling these conversations. Lou Campbell highlights some of the issues.
Psychological safety is increasingly being spoken about in the context of work, particularly the need to enable a space where diversity of thought and open conversations are encouraged. This is key to an inclusive workplace environment, where the mental health and wellbeing of employees is more likely to be nurtured and valued.
Employers that create a psychologically safe space for staff to express their views and vulnerabilities not only show care for existing employees, but improve their culture and competitive edge in the fight for skills and talent.
However, many organisations find themselves walking a tightrope between psychological safety and mental health, with few getting it right. Encouraging conversations about mental health does not always mean organisations effectively support psychological safety, or understand when to involve occupational health professionals or mental health support services.
Unqualified mental health advice
Mental health conversations
Many leaders fear discussions about mental health, often because they do not know how to respond appropriately. Conversely, other leaders welcome these conversations but without understanding appropriate boundaries. Increasingly we hear stories of managers and HR professionals giving unqualified mental health advice, engaging in fixing behaviours, or turning the conversation onto their own experiences, rather than listening and signposting to professional support. Unsurprisingly, this can quickly descend into a psychologically unsafe situation for all parties.
Research from Wellbeing Partners found 38% of HR managers are having conversations with employees about their mental health outside of working hours, and 26% say they become overly-involved in employees’ mental health issues.
This lack of boundaries can also disempower employees. If a manager or HR professional attempts to counsel an employee it can be difficult for the employee to put a boundary in place with someone more senior to them. Employees often come away from those conversations feeling unheard and regretting they opened up.
Usually there are clear boundaries around supporting someone with physical health issues but unqualified leaders often forget that mental health is health. Imagine a scenario where an employee has a back injury and the manager or HR professional attempts to manipulate their spine or provide a treatment plan – this situation would be dangerous and a clear breach of the employee’s boundaries. However, mental health is not always viewed through this lens, and many managers and HR professionals assume they are expected to provide mental health advice and counselling.
Training HR and management to have supportive and appropriate conversations around mental health can give confidence to those who are reticent, and rein in those who have a tendency to over-involve themselves.”
Setting boundaries is key to psychological safety. Training HR and management to have supportive and appropriate conversations around mental health can give confidence to those who are reticent, and rein in those who have a tendency to over-involve themselves.
Wellbeing Partners’ ‘Boundaries for Supportive Conversations’ is a key module in our Mental Health Training for Managers course, the Wellbeing Training for HR course, and the Talking Mental Health course. It offers clear definitions around what support is helpful, and where professional support from occupational health and mental health providers is more appropriate.
Here is a selection of tips for healthy conversations about mental health:
Listen: If a colleague is willing to talk about an issue, they will want to be listened to and validated. They don’t want to be interrupted, nor should they have to listen to their manager or HR’s own mental health anecdotes, be analysed, or encouraged to focus on the “positives”.
Explore: Unless the leader or HR is a qualified mental health professional, it is not safe to give advice or try to solve a colleague’s mental health or personal issues. An exploration of what professional support the employee might benefit from is the correct approach. A few simple explorative questions are important for leaders to learn.
Signpost to professional support: This is often appropriate, especially if the organisation has an EAP, a counselling service or an OH professional in place. However, signposting is more than a logistical step, it is a skill. If handled incorrectly, it can be interpreted negatively by employees: being told to get professional support can be viewed as a threat or accusation.
Many employees now expect psychological safety around mental health issues. Employers who fail to support this new normal, and who do not train staff in the skills to navigate these conversations in a safe way, may struggle to create a culture that attracts and empowers the workforce of the future.