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Having a Conversation with Someone You’re Concerned About

By Tasha Broomhall

Many leaders report that they notice a change in the behaviour of employees, yet do not know how to talk about mental health issues openly and respectfully. Sometimes these leaders say nothing because they are afraid of saying the ‘wrong’ thing or are worried they will offend the person. This sometimes means that they don’t connect with and offer help and support to employees who really need it.

One In Five Adults

Approximately one in five adults will experience mental health issues in any given year, and 45% of adults will experience clinical levels of a mental illness in their lifetime. With such high prevalence this is an important conversation skill set to have.

If an employer observes a change in the behaviour or mood of an employee, they need to consider if it is something ongoing and determine if it is impacting on the employee’s functioning at work. It is important to approach the person to talk about these concerns openly and respectfully before implementing any change to work duties or tasks.

Having This Conversation Appropriately

There are four components to having this conversation appropriately in the workplace. In summary these are:

  • Don’t diagnose
  • Do with, not to
  • Approach them sensitively
  • Approach them sensitively – time, place, language

Dedicate Your Full Attention

Neither of you should feel rushed, nor likely to be interrupted. Choose a time when you are able to dedicate your full attention to the person and you can listen and connect with them. Early in the work week and early in the work shift are ideal. This will enable you time to initiate the conversation and if necessary take a break and come back together to finish the conversation either before the employee leaves work for the day or later that week.

Choose a private place to talk, and where possible, take it away from the central hub of the workplace. This should include privacy before and after the meeting, so consider a room or area with more than one entry or exit point.

Language

The language you use is critical. You have the best chance of engaging positively with the person if your language is respectful and non-judgmental. Inappropriate language can increase stigma and prejudice. It can also increase misunderstanding and feed negative stereotypes, making a vulnerable person feel more isolated, misunderstood and hopeless.

When we observe changes in an employee and are concerned about how they are doing, it can be a sensitive conversation. Many leaders say they are concerned about being intrusive in raising their concerns. This simple approach can help.

Having a Conversation with Someone You’re Concerned About

Step 1. Frame It

Before you have the conversation with the employee consider whether your observations and concerns are related to their work performance or to their personal wellbeing. This will then determine the boundaries and likely outcomes of the conversation. If your issue is of personal concern only, you can choose to raise your concerns with the employee yet do not go further if the employee does not want to discuss the issue with you.

If your observations are indicating a work performance issue you need to frame the conversation as being related to professional concern. You are providing the employee with the opportunity to raise any issues that may have affected their work performance, and if they do so then you will discuss possible adjustments with them. However, if they choose not to discuss any contributing issues (such as personal or mental health problems), you will still need to deal with the performance issues.

Step 2. “I’ve Noticed …”

Describe what you have noticed which has led to these concerns. Keep your observations objective and measurable – you should not be attempting to give the employee a diagnosis or simply be stating your own judgements and opinions. Outline the observed change in their behaviour or simply say, “I’ve noticed …” Only focus on their behaviour, and not your interpretation of what this behaviour might mean.

Step 3. “Have You Noticed …?”

Asking the employee “Have you noticed …?” or “Is that true for you?” or “Is there something going on with that?” gives them an opportunity to connect with you if they choose to do so. It helps the employee to clarify if you are on the right track, or if there is some other reason for their behavioural changes.

Step 4. “Zip It!”

The final step in the process then involves you not saying anything: “Zip It!” Many people find this the most difficult stage of the process, but it is vital that you let the employee find, organise and relay their thoughts to you, if they so choose. You sometimes need to be silent for twice as long as you think is socially appropriate in order to allow the employee to catch up to you with their thoughts, and to decide what they are willing and comfortable to disclose in this situation.

Your goal is not to diagnose or therapise your employee. It is to talk about your observations and get their feedback. You may be totally off track. What you’ve observed may have nothing to do with mental health issues, however, if you’ve observed behaviours of concern and you raise them respectfully with the employee, and they are experiencing mental health issues, then they may feel more comfortable disclosing these to you.

You can then come to a shared understanding. You may be the only person in their life who has respectfully reached out to offer support. If they do require any supports in the workplace this conversation can certainly help you to discuss options for supporting them while at the same time managing the organisation’s needs.

For Example:

FRAME IT – Personal

  1. ‘This has nothing to do with your work performance, however, I have noticed a few things lately and I’m wondering if you’re doing ok?’
  2. ‘I’ve noticed … x y z (observable/measurable). I was wondering if you’ve noticed a pattern with this as well, and if there might be something behind it?’
  3. ‘Have you noticed?’ Or ‘Is that true for you?’ or ‘Is there something behind that for you?’ Your intention here is to engage the person in the conversation with you.
  4. Zip it!

Or

FRAME IT – Professional

  1. ‘I want to discuss a few things with you that I have observed lately. This is related to your work performance, however I want to offer you support if you need it before we deal with the performance issues.’
  2. ‘I have noticed a few things lately and I’m wondering if you’re doing ok?’
  3. ‘I’ve noticed … x y z (observable/measurable).’
  4. ‘I was wondering if you’ve noticed a pattern with this as well, and if there might be something behind it?’

This is an edited extract from the book Bloom! At Work, written by Tasha Broomhall.

The book is available for purchase here.

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Image credit: Harli Marten (Unsplash).

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