How to check in with an employee and ask if they're okay

Managing a team or a business means you’re working closely with other people.

You know their everyday habits and can often predict how they’ll behave in a particular situation. This means you’re in a good position to notice when something’s up.

Perhaps an employee looks tired and stressed, or they’re uncharacteristically turning up late several times a week. Maybe they’re avoiding meetings and social activities when they used to happily lead these gatherings.

As a leader, checking in with your employees and asking if they’re okay is an important way to provide support. If they want to talk about anything that’s troubling them, you can help them find strategies to better manage. Here’s how to go about it.

Promote a mentally healthy workplace

First things first: an estimated 53% of managers say they feel comfortable checking in on the people that report to them, according to research for SEEK. Leading in a way that builds a mentally healthy environment makes these conversations easier and less intimidating, explains SEEK’s Resident Psychologist Sabina Read.

“It's about maximising protective factors in the workplace that promote positive mental health. More than anything, fostering a sense of agency and decision making in your team is crucial,” she says.

“And when you show a level of vulnerability, you’re inviting others to do the same. You're not saying that this behaviour is only appropriate or expected at certain levels of the organisation.”

Focus on observable changes

A further 36% of managers say they’ve checked in on the people that report to them when they noticed them struggling at work. Read’s advice for managing this conversation is simple: focus on observable changes in behaviour, mood, appearance and thinking – not what you think those changes mean or what could be wrong.

“If someone's been typically punctual and now you’re noticing that they're often late, that's an observable change,” she says. “Letting them know you have seen a shift in their punctuality four out of five days for the last two weeks is based on a factual statement. It's not loaded and it’s not open to interpretation. It doesn't come with judgment – you’re not deducing that something significant has happened in their life. “

“You’re simply checking in and asking if they’re okay based on changes to their recent behaviour.”

Create a safe space

People can feel nervous discussing their wellbeing with their manager, so it’s important to be clear that you’re having an open conversation with no judgement, Read explains.

“When you're in a position of authority, there's a lot at stake and there's a lot at risk, so people may curtail their experience if they think it will change the way their manager views them or values their work.

“As a manager, you need to be clear that they’re in a safe space and that it's a separate conversation unrelated to performance, productivity or outcomes.”

Emphasise the right to privacy

A key element of the safe space you’ve created is privacy. “As a manager, you need to express your employee’s right to privacy,” Read says.

“Explain that it’s a conversation between you and them, and that you won’t be talking about it with anyone else, like other team members or the HR department, without their permission.”

Explore adjusting their workload

You might feel unsure about what to do if your employees explains that they’re struggling. In fact, 35% of managers suspected someone was struggling at work but didn't ask if they were okay.

But here’s the thing: it’s not your job to diagnose the problem or provide solutions. “Don’t assume you know what they need. What you're trying to do is ask open-ended questions that facilitate action,” Read says.

One of the most important questions you can ask is around workload. “Explore with the person what they think they may need more or less of with regards to redistributing or modifying their workload,” Read says.

“Try not to assume that you know what they need, as often people still want to stay connected to their work and they want to know that they're making a meaningful contribution.”

Checking in with your employees about their mental wellbeing can make a big impact in the workplace. Fostering safe spaces for these important conversations and asking sensitive follow-up questions shows your team that you care and you’re there to offer support.

For more resources to help you check in on the people around you or talk about mental health, visit Head to Health or Beyond Blue.

Independent research conducted by Nature of behalf of SEEK, interviewing 4800 Australians annually. Published September 2023.

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