Advice from Spill's therapists
Create space to talk about mental healthAsk and actively listenTips for initiating the conversationRelated resources
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Talking about mental health with staff on video calls

Spill's qualified therapists answer real questions from employees looking for advice about managing others.

I often find myself having tough conversations with employees over video calls about their mental health. How would you recommend first initiating this chat if I can see someone is struggling but then making sure I give the right amount of support?

Our first therapist suggests...

Create space to talk about mental health

One of the most effective ways of creating the right conditions for this type of conversation is to make sure you don’t combine it with a call about other issues.

For example, if you add on a conversation about mental health at the end of a business review it gives the impression that the discussion about mental health is a bit of an afterthought and something you might be doing simply because you feel you have to do it.

Don’t be afraid of raising the topic of mental heath and, while it might feel tough or awkward at first, once your team know that you have the courage to address the conversation with confidence they will start to feel easier about discussing it with you.

Start simply by telling them what you’re seeing and then ask a supplementary question that invites them to open up a little. So, something like: “I’ve been noticing XYZ recently and I’m feeling a bit concerned about you. Tell me how you’re feeling at the moment?”

Remember that creating the space for someone to step into and talk about their mental health is not a guarantee that they will accept it so don’t push too hard if your team member doesn’t want to talk. If that is the case simply tell them that you are always available if they feel they want to discuss or raise something with you.

In terms of how you might position the conversation when you are organising it, try and keep it informal: “I’d just like to schedule a chat so that I can check on how you’re doing. I know working remotely has its challenges and I think its a good idea if we catch up on that once in a while instead of only talking about the work itself.”

The benefit of a statement like this is that you are also signalling that it won’t be a one-off which will help your team to be ready the next time it happens. People sometimes take a while to open up so making it a regular thing will make it less difficult for you both.

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Our second therapist suggests...

Ask and actively listen

Sounds like you’re doing a great and hard job.

Let’s acknowledge that it already sounds like you’re being a supportive manager. You are offering your employee a space to chat and a space to be heard. That’s huge. However, we may sometimes need some extra help so here are a few things to keep in mind:

Remind yourself that, above anything else, you’re there to listen. You do NOT need to be the expert on what they are disclosing and you do NOT need to “fix” their situation. Listen and understand.

Make sure these chats are given appropriate time and space (e.g. not rushed in between meetings, and in a private video call, not a group).
Ask them what they need. We are all different with different ways of coping. Don’t assume or guess what this person needs; ask.
With regards to how much you enquire about, have a think about your own boundaries and how much you can handle hearing. You may yourself be full of emotion right now so a deep conversation may not be possible for you, but if you have capacity to hold space for this person then that is a lovely thing to offer.

Be mindful about trying to ‘rescue’ them; when we do this it’s more about OUR needs. WE want this person to be OK and WE want to make it all better for them. This can be unhelpful to both parties as the rescuer is always trying to find new ‘solutions’ and can become consumed with this as a project (and ultimately exhausted). They can also be left feeling utterly helpless as many emotional events are not problems that can be solved but experiences to process and adapt to with support and time.

Be aware that the employee may want to chat, or they may not. And that’s OK. We need to respect the boundaries of others. Create a psychologically safe workplace where they can tell you when they’re not OK without fear of consequence. If appropriate, and if therapy is offered as a benefit in your company, you can signpost them to a therapist for more professional support.

If you don’t feel skilled in active listening or holding a compassionate conversation, book onto a Mental Health First Aid training where these skills can be learnt including how to open a conversation.

Be yourself. Use your language and communication style and treat them like you would a good friend in need.

There is no one ‘right amount’ of support. We all move through the world differently and need different things when we’re struggling. The best way to know what an employee needs is therefore to ask. They may not know, and that’s OK, just remind them you’re there. By asking, you’re also checking out their boundaries; what’s OK and not OK to ask or do, and then respect their boundaries. If they don’t want to talk, don’t question. If they want some help, ask them what they need.

Having access to next-day therapy sessions can help employees to address poor mental heath and build resilience.
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Our third therapist suggests...

Tips for initiating the conversation

In terms of ideas for initiating conversations and knowing how much support to give, I have some suggestions:

  • Having regular check-ins with employees will make these kinds of conversations easier and enhance communication overall with your team.
  • Encourage staff to be open about mental health concerns. Employees need to feel that it is safe to raise issues without retaliation or judgement.
  • If you are concerned about a staff member, share what you observed. You could say something like, ‘X I noticed that lately you don’t seem to be your usual self. There’s been a decrease in your productivity (give details), and you seem less connected to the team. Do you have any ideas about what may be causing difficulties?’ Aim to be warm, curious and avoid making assumptions. Let the employee explain what is happening and don’t feel like you need to know what to do right away. You can let the employee know you need to get more information or have space to think if you feel stuck. If the employee denies they are struggling but this does not match what you have seen, say so. It’s OK to say, ‘You seem anxious lately’ for example if you know there is evidence of this.
  • For employees who are clearly struggling, ask them what they need. Aim to meet reasonable requests which might be things like taking a mental health day, supporting them to address a workplace problem or letting them have more breaks.
  • It’s OK to make suggestions. You can signpost employees to their GP as well as any other workplace resources.
  • Continue to check-in with staff who are struggling. Record any agreements made and track progress. Ensure you are following workplace guidance.
  • Be mindful of your boundaries, for example if the employee has a complex relationship with their mother, it is not your job to fix this. Your role is about support for workplace issues, checking general safety and to provide a basic level of empathy and listening skills.
  • Access training if you feel this would enhance your confidence.
  • It is not easy supporting people who are struggling mentally. What helps you to perform at your best and let go of the day’s stresses?
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