Part 1: How to have a conversation about mental health in the workplace?

Starting a conversation well and knowing how to manage what might come up will help you and your colleague get the most from it. Think of it as a story having a beginning, a middle and an end – perhaps it will be a ‘blockbuster’ one off or maybe the first chapter in a book. When it comes to mental health and wellbeing there are as many stories as there are people; our unique presence in the world, our previous experiences, our expectations and hopes, all influence how we think, feel and behave. How can we open up conversations to begin our understanding of the people we care about? This is all about the beginning…

1. Choose your time and place.

This sounds very obvious but mistimed conversations and inappropriate settings are easily remembered for the wrong reasons. Conversations which happen in passing, can be overheard and sandwiched between all other activities on a busy work day, are not conducive to you really connecting with the person opposite you. Try to identify a time where you are both a bit less stressed, so perhaps once you have settled into your day after the busy commute, or just before lunch so that it is easier to leave the conversation and go and get some fresh air or a bite to eat. Let the other person know that you are looking forward to meeting up with them, allay the anxieties that are probably building once the other person knows they are on your radar. Choose a place which is quiet, comfortable, well lit, airy and warm. If there are other people around, make sure they do not interrupt and are not able to overhear or oversee your interactions. This is how office gossip can start and breaches the confidentiality aspect of sensitive conversations.

2. Be welcoming.

Offer a choice of where the other person sits unless you are in your office. Familiar spaces and places within them help us to feel more relaxed. Think of how we often choose the same place to sit in our homes or when we attend training courses. Try to make sure that if you are in an office you do not have a busy desk in front of you, clutter is not calming and in fact can contribute to chaotic thoughts and lack of ordered thinking. Ideally, your chairs should be at an angle to each other and not directly opposite as this can be intimidating and gives the more formal impression of an interview or power conversation.

3. Minimise disruption.

Switch off your phones or volume for notifications, close your laptop or turn your screen away from you and book time out in your diary for the meeting. Allow enough time as being late, needing to end early or being rushed because you have run out of time is not conducive to the other person feeling as though you are managing this well. Subsequently you are less likely to have a positive outcome from the conversation and potentially lose your window of opportunity to gain trust and respect in relation to sensitive conversations. This will have an impact on how other colleagues could feel when they are invited to meet you.

4. Being aware and taking care.

Have fresh water or warm drinks available – when people are nervous they often experience a dry mouth. A glass or cup is also a welcome change of focus if the person needs to look away and think for a minute. Have a box of tissues to hand, these are needed more often than you might think, and offer the opportunity for the person to get up and move around if they want to. This helps with regulation of breathing, muscle tension and concentration. It may also help that person feel as though they have more control as they are ‘bigger’ in the room – it’s important for you to remain seated and calm but maintain eye contact as much as possible so they know they are being heard.

5. Now you can talk!

Making someone feel comfortable often begins with a smile, open posturing and an appropriate greeting. Slow your pace down, don’t appear rushed and breathe. Try to use everyday language, don’t use unfamiliar terms or jargon and try not to set out a map of how you’d like the conversation to go. Acknowledge that having a chat about how someone is feeling can sometimes feel stressful, but also reassure that it can be refreshing to talk over things that you might be able to help with. Start with a personal comment such as “I have found the last few weeks a real challenge and I’m still feeling unsettled by it all”, you could then follow on with an open question such as “How about you?” Think about your non-verbal communication, nods, eye contact and a relaxed position in your chair will give the message that you are listening and more importantly, hearing. Minimal prompts such as “mmm” or “OK”, using encouraging words such as “can you say a bit more” or asking for a bit more clarity can also really help the conversation flow. Don’t be afraid of saying that you’re not sure what something means – perhaps say something like “I’m not sure I completely understand, can you explain it to me again?” shows that you are trying to put a context and reality on their lived experience

You are now in a conversation! Being well prepared and mindful of the initial mechanics of how to start are key for what happens next…

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