With so much uncertainty and change around us, there’s a fair chance the wellbeing of your workforce is under strain. But what are the right things to say and do when someone reaches out, or if you think that they may be struggling?
SEEK’s Resident Psychologist, Sabina Read, answers four common questions to help ensure your conversations around mental health and wellbeing are positive and productive.
1. My team tell me they are fine, but how do I really know if they are okay?
Read says it’s important to remember your role and the expectations on you as a manager. “It’s not your job to diagnose. It’s not your job to fix, and you don’t need to have all the solutions,” says Read.
“But you can help create a space that’s safe to talk about mental health and wellbeing issues and also find their own solutions.”
It’s important to be careful not to make assumptions, says Read. Stick to the obvious behavioural changes you have noticed.
Do you have a chatty and confident team member who has become withdrawn? Or a punctual employee who is great at meeting deadlines who has started slipping on both counts? These are observable changes that you can comment on when talking to them about how they are feeling.
“When we raise these kinds of issues it’s difficult for a team member to feel defensive, attacked, criticised, or diagnosed, because we’re just sticking to the facts,” says Read. “It’s a great non-threatening way to start a conversation.”
2. What if a person’s response is more than I anticipated? What are the best tools to support them in the heat of the moment?
It’s okay to feel overwhelmed by something someone tells you. Perhaps the conversation has come unexpectedly when your attention is needed elsewhere and you don’t have the time right now to give their concerns the attention they deserve.
Read says it’s entirely appropriate to let this person know you hear what they are telling you, and acknowledge its importance, but that the best way for you to do it justice is to set aside a dedicated time to talk about it as soon as you can.
In the meantime, think about what external resources might be available. It could be a psychologist, your HR team, or your company’s Employee Assistance Program – if these are options. Sometimes getting an employee to talk to trusted peers or another manager can be beneficial.
Read says you don’t need to have all the answers. As a manager, you’re creating a safe space for this person to express themselves and share their story.
“Often people have their own solutions,” says Read. “They know what they need but they may not be honouring it at this time. Asking some good open-ended questions can help pull that solution out of someone when they think they are stuck.”
Try asking questions such as:
- What do you need at this time that you are not getting?
- How do you best support yourself? What’s worked for you in the past?
- What do you need from me at this time?
- What’s the hardest thing about being you at this time?
3. How can I foster an environment free from stigma or fear of judgment?
“We want to create a culture that acknowledges that we all struggle sometimes. There’s no one in the team that hasn’t had a difficult time at some point,” says Read.
The language we use, and accept, in our workplace is also key to creating a safe space for people to speak up, hopefully before they hit crisis point.
Read says allowing a culture where terms such as ‘crazy person’ are thrown around, even in a light-hearted way, can be enough to stop someone from wanting to speak up.
As a manager your track record is on show, so how you respond to people with wellbeing issues will determine whether others feel comfortable reaching out in the future.
One way to you can help to establish a supportive environment is to lead by example. Sharing how you’re feeling or acknowledging that you feel stress or pressure in particular situations can help create a safe space where others feel more empowered to do the same.
You could also share resources or articles about mental health and wellbeing, and let your team know you’re available to them if they ever need to talk.
4. I see a lot of job applicants in difficult situations and feel guilty when I can’t help them. How can I take care of myself while also supporting these candidates?
It can be tricky managing our own challenges while trying to keep others supported. Read says you don’t have to be happy or have good news all the time - it’s important to be authentic whenever you can.
She recommends things like showing empathy, acknowledging when times are difficult, and providing genuine feedback to candidates.
Importantly, don’t ignore your own self-care needs. Make time for those things you know lift your spirits so you can be in the right head space when those around you need your support.
We’re in it together
Ultimately, says Read, openness and honesty are what will help you establish a safe and supportive workplace.
“We are all struggling, we are all dealing with uncertainty. None of us have the answers and it’s okay to share that,” she says. “As long as we are empathetic, and open, and authentic, we are going to create an environment that helps every one of us to thrive.”