Dr Ariele Noble is Head of Research Psychology at Mental Health Innovations and leads our external training on workplace wellbeing. In this article she explores the importance of facilitating positive conversations around mental wellbeing in the workplace, and how employers can support their employees.
In the UK, an estimated 17 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2021/22. A recent report by The Workforce Institute at UKG also found that managers have more of an impact on people’s mental health than they may realise. According to 69% of people, their managers had the greatest impact on their mental health; in line with their partners and having more of an impact than their therapist (41%) or doctor (51%). By addressing issues early on through encouraging and facilitating positive conversations around mental wellbeing with employees, employers can help to foster a supportive culture; one in which staff feel listened to and validated.
At Mental Health Innovations, we know the importance of being able to have positive mental wellbeing in the workplace. Our insights found that more than half (52%) of employees don’t feel comfortable talking to their manager about mental health. We work with businesses to equip leadership teams with the knowledge and training to hold supportive conversations around mental wellbeing.
We know that for someone to make sense of their thoughts and feelings, it can help to share and discuss them. It can show courage and vulnerability to talk about your feelings, but in a work environment it can feel unsafe for an employee to open up and show this vulnerability unless they know they will get the response they need.
If someone feels unsafe to start a conversation, the result can be that they bottle up their feelings. Unpleasant emotions can grow and if too many opportunities to talk about how they’re feeling are missed, they can become overwhelmed and struggle to cope. Against a backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost of living crisis, the last few years have been especially tough for many, and facilitating these types of conversations at work - either online or in-person - is key.
Having supportive conversations at work not only helps us to spot and address issues early on, but builds trust and belonging too. Noticing when someone is struggling, asking questions, listening and offering support, all form the basis of having positive conversations.
Here are some of the ways we encourage employers to build the foundations for positive conversations in the workplace around mental health:
To build rapport is to feel like we have enough safety with someone to be vulnerable with them. It takes courage and openness for someone to share their thoughts and feelings.
As employers, there are things you can do to build rapport. Create a safe space to have the conversation and pay attention to how someone is feeling. Letting them know you’ve noticed them, that you care, reaching out to connect with them and actively listening to what they’re saying are all ways you can leave employees feeling supported. We all suffer and struggle sometimes and also have the opportunity to lead more meaningful and connected lives.
Encouraging active listening
In our wellbeing training at Mental Health Innovations, we start with the importance of active listening. The purpose of listening is to understand, not to respond. Many of us listen with the intent to reply rather than understand, and so it’s key that you focus on the person who is sharing their thoughts and feelings, so that they feel encouraged to speak without interruption and fill any silences that arise.
As part of active listening it’s important that, even though it might be done with good intentions, you don’t try to give advice. Giving advice often takes away the ownership of the situation, so instead, try to give people space to talk things through. Given that time to talk, they often find their own way forward.
Validation helps keep our need to advise and fix at bay and instead, helps us to stick with supporting the person with reassuring statements such as “No wonder you’re feeling anxious, it makes sense to feel worried about…” or “It sounds like things have been really tough for you.”
When people express an unpleasant emotion or difficult experience, you can try using validations to let them know that there’s nothing wrong with them for feeling and thinking the way that they do. It can help someone to feel heard and understood.
Ask effective questions
Lastly, ask effective questions. There are two main guidelines as part of our training that we look to implement for this. The first is to ask open-ended questions – questions that can’t be answered with a “yes” or “no”. For example, instead of asking a close-ended question such as “Are you okay?” try asking a question such as “How are you?” instead. This keeps the conversation open and helps the other person open up about their thoughts and feelings.
The second guideline is to ask ‘what’, not ‘why’. Why questions often take us down a path of self-judgement. To encourage someone to share their thoughts and feelings, start your questions with what, how, when, or who. You’ll also find that these questions often cannot be answered with a yes or no.
Some examples of effective questions to ask include:
- "What do you think would help?"
- "How can I support you in doing that?”"
- "Where can you go from here to help yourself? "
- "What support will you need?"
These simple and effective reframing of questions offer you a more constructive way to be curious, which in turn offers the other person a sign that you care.
There are many positive outcomes of fostering a culture of care, openness and support at work. Ultimately, when employees feel safe enough to bring their whole selves to work, they work at their highest potential.