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Talking about mental health at work

Brendan Street, professional head of emotional wellbeing, Nuffield Health, offers advice for dealing with mental health in the workplace.


We often hear the statistic one in four of us will experience a mental health issue in our lives. However, we all have mental health and our needs change daily. 

At work, the responsibility to have open conversations about mental health lives with everyone but disclosing personal distress can be daunting. 

Here are some practical tips to get the most out of conversations about mental health with employees.

Careful preparation

Confidence in talking to staff about their mental health improves with preparation. Get to know your organisation’s mental health policy, alongside the facts of the situation.

Preparing yourself with knowledge of resources available allows you to act after an employee discloses a problem.

Remain consistent and confidential in these conversations, although depending on what’s disclosed, you might have a responsibility to tell someone. 

You may need to seek advice after talking to an employee. This could be from an expert like a doctor or HR professional, who can provide advice. 

Don’t just talk

When an employee approaches you, use active listening techniques – fully concentrating, understanding and responding to what’s being said. 

Show you’re ‘listening to understand’ an employee by reflecting (echoing words back) and paraphrasing (rephrasing the content).  

Language can signpost mental health concerns. Persistent low mood is often referred to as the ‘tyranny of shoulds’, so words like ‘should’ and ‘must’ may be common. 

Low mood and anxiety are also associated with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, so look out for language with this tone.  

Next steps

Ask the right questions to get the most out of each conversation. Keep questions open-ended and simple, like “I’ve noticed you’ve seemed distracted lately, is everything okay?” We tend to respond to questions like this by saying “I’m fine”. So, ask again, “are you really fine?” 

If they do begin to talk, show you’re really listening with phrases like “that must be really difficult” and importantly, “how can I help?”

Schedule time to have conversations, so you don’t cut discussions short. Consider factors like the person has had a particularly busy or stressful day and choose your moment carefully.

Recommend the right support to an employee by outlining their available options, like flexible working hours or temporarily less responsibility. 

You may need to seek external support from a third party. Fortunately, many companies now provide emotional wellbeing services to cater to every business’ diverse needs.

Know your rights

All employers must make reasonable adjustments to work practices and provide other aids and adaptations for those in need.

Reasonable adjustments depend on both the employee and their health, plus your business and its resources. However, they don’t have to negatively impact the workplace or the performance of the employee. 

Consult with a doctor or psychotherapist and work with the employee in question to agree on adjustments you can offer that balances the needs of the employee and the business.