Asking the right questions for mental health

Many managers uncomfortable raising concerns with employees

Asking the right questions for mental health

Despite all the talk about mental health in the workplace, one of the biggest hurdles is leaders who are unaware that team members are struggling, or don’t know how to approach them.

That’s backed up by the results of a global survey by LHH and Adecco Group that found more than half (53 per cent) of managers find it difficult to identify staff who are struggling with mental wellbeing.

And 51 per cent say they have trouble identifying the warning signs of employee burnout. 

Plus, 67 per cent of non-managers say leaders don’t meet their expectations for checking on their wellness. But 70 per cent of respondents across all groups say having support in the workplace for mental wellbeing will be of extreme importance going into the future, according to the survey.

So, how exactly can leaders address mental health issues among staff? It’s about watching for red flags, asking the right questions and offering support, not counselling, say two experts.

Look for warning signs

The main thing that leaders, HR and coworkers should watch for are changes in a person’s behaviour, mood and physical appearance, says Sandra Primiano, vice president of stay-at-work services at Homewood Health in Montreal.

“It could be increased absenteeism, loss of productivity… somebody is late or missing meetings, not showing up to meetings,” she says. “If they maybe come across as irritable or short[-tempered] or easily angered, and they're having trouble with interpersonal relationships… If they're generally positive and upbeat, you might notice that they become more negative or pessimistic.”

A worker who is increasingly withdrawn could also indicate a mental health issue, says Primiano.

“Someone may speak less, somebody may participate less. You may notice that... they're smiling less, showing less engagement with different projects or tasks. They might be avoiding you.”

More than one-third (37 per cent) of Canadian workers feel unsafe to talk about mental health at work, according to a report from Sun Life.

First steps to checking in

One of the key steps to checking in with employees is allowing space for the conversation, says Denise Lloyd, founder and CEO of Engaged HR in Victoria.

“If you ask, ‘How are you doing?’ and people know you have 10 minutes for this meeting and you don't really want to make space for this, you're just asking to be nice, then they're not going to tell you… If you're meeting to talk about work, then people tend to dive right into the work and you don't always have the time for the individual conversation. If you leave enough time, and you place it first in your agenda, and people note that's actually why you're meeting… people feel like that they're the priority versus what they're working on.”

It’s leaders’ responsibility to educate themselves and to have basic information about what mental health issues may look like, what type of symptoms may present, and what to be attentive to, says Primiano.

“[It’s about] spreading correct information, correcting misinformation, making sure you treat people with dignity and respect, obviously, but look at them as a whole, even if they're experiencing mental health issues as a part of them.”

Leaders tend to avoid these kinds of conversations because they're not sure how to deal with it or they don't know what to do, she says. But it's important to remember your job isn't there to provide mental health support; your job is to identify that there may be an issue and give them resources.

“[It’s about] being aware of what your company has in terms of mental health resources,” says Primiano, such as an employee and family assistance program (EFAP) or key person advice line.

It's about recognizing that managers don't need to be counsellors, says Lloyd.

“Really, it's about creating an opportunity for an employee to talk about whatever is going on for them. And if there's something that they need, that the manager is able to help them get that. So, is it access to the EAP program so they can get some counselling? Is it helping manage workload? Is it more flexibility in your schedule? Like what are the things that are within the employer's control that they can provide to the employee in the form of support?”

And leaders shouldn’t be concerned that they’re prying when they check in on a staff member, she says.

“The prying is only if you're trying to focus in on the issue and not on the solution, and if you're trying to counsel versus support with resources and conversation.”

Organizations that support personal wellbeing are seeing staff report higher mental health scores, according to an earlier survey by LifeWorks. And employer programs for improving employee wellbeing are good for business overall, according to an Aon report.

Asking the right questions

In raising any concerns, it’s important to remember that the work part is just a symptom, it's not the issue, says Lloyd.

“It's not saying, ‘Your work is not up to par so what's wrong with you?’ It's all in how you approach the conversation, so… [asking]: ‘I have no concerns about the quality of your work but I've noticed that the work is not up to your usual standard. And so I'm concerned: how are you doing?’” she says.

“This is about showing support, and the showing of empathy for what's going on for that individual. So it's definitely approaching it from a place of concern and support for the person, not ... to solve the quality of the work problems.”

Leaders can always give examples of what they’ve noticed, such as an angry response or quiet demeanour in a meeting, says Lloyd.

“You can always say things like ‘How can I help…? And is there anything I can do?’” she says.

“You're not trying to overstep a boundary or talk about a symptom or [use] a mental health term or a diagnosis or something like that, but look at it as you would a leader and in terms of what you're noticing, how it's affecting the team, how it's affecting the person's performance.”

It’s about being human and non-judgmental, allowing people to feel comfortable to open up to you, says Lloyd. Questions could include: “I noticed that you've been missing a lot of meetings lately or you've been late often --- can you talk to me about what is going on or why that is?”

It’s not about asking for specifics, she says, such as: “Are you experiencing personal problems? Do you feel depressed?”

“We don't need to go anywhere near those kinds of questions, but you can say what you've noticed, and ‘Do you need support? What do you need from me?’ And then you can let them drive the conversation, so they can share as much or as little as they want.”

Questions about the efficacy of workplace wellness programs continue to pester employers: Are they worth the investment? Are they a must-have or a nice-to-have? Which initiatives have the greatest impact?

In taking a long-term look at the issue, a recent study provides encouraging results.

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