How to talk to an employee about their mental health

There's still a prevalent stigma around psychological health – and it's HR's role to eradicate it

How to talk to an employee about their mental health

No matter how much training, guidance and or legislation is put in place, the reality is there’s still a lingering stigma around discussing mental health in the workplace. Most employees are not comfortable sharing personal issues or mental battles that they are going through and sometimes this affects their work quality.

If you’re struggling with depression, a relationship break-up, separation from your children or a death of a loved one, it’s hard to convey your feelings to yourself, let alone work colleagues. So, what exactly is HR’s role in encouraging employees to speak up?

“We’ve come a long way as a society in improving prejudice and removing the stigma of mental health and wellbeing conversations in the workplace, however, there’s still a long way to go,” Jamie MacLennan, Senior Vice-President and Managing Director, Asia-Pacific at LifeWorks, said. “Unfortunately, many people still have negative attitudes and beliefs towards those struggling with mental health and wellbeing. These attitudes are often a result of a lack of awareness and understanding.

“Furthermore, our Mental Health Index research shows that more than half of employees believe that their career options would be limited if they had a mental health issue and their workplace was aware. This fear also causes people not to openly discuss it, making it harder to break down the stigma.”

Therein lies the major issue – people are reluctant to share because of the consequences that they think they will suffer. If it is not bad enough to be experiencing a mental health issue, this can be compounded by adding another mental health issue on top of it. Hardly an ideal scenario.

“Fighting prejudice against mental health at work starts from the top down,” MacLennan said. “Companies must implement human resource policies that protect employees with mental health issues and proactively encourage them to take care of their mental health.

“Mental health awareness initiatives, EAP and wellbeing programs are important solutions that help to break down the current prejudice against mental health in the workplace. Human resource needs to work together with leadership teams to ensure they’re setting the right policies and procedures that work for the organisation and its employees.

“Most often, even with all the support of senior executives, front-line managers are at the coal face of identifying and dealing with mental health, however, they are often the least trained and supported in what to look for and what to do. It is imperative that organisations support their policies with training for their managers.”

Identifying and supporting people with mental health concerns is a big challenge for many companies. It is not easily identifiable and the topic has to be carefully handled, but the problem can’t be ignored.

“Companies that don’t address mental health in the workplace will have higher absenteeism, higher employee turnover, less employee productivity and overall dissatisfied workplace,” MacLennan added. “Our research found that 45% of Australians end their workday feeling mentally and/or physically exhausted. While absenteeism contributes to a loss in productivity, benchmark data indicates that this is a small proportion of the overall loss.

“The greater impacts to productivity loss are from discretionary effort and presenteeism. Mental health scores are strongly associated with productivity. Finally, creating a culture of support and implementing human resource policies that reflect this culture are critical to make all employees feel valued.”

Mental health concerns are only likely to increase in society as we enter into a more fragmented workplace and with differing goals for Generations Y and Z. It is an issue where employees are protected by legislation but they also need to be protected in the workplace too by feeling comfortable enough to share what they are experiencing without any ramifications.

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