Mental health in the workplace – practical tips on starting conversations

In recognition of RUOK day 2019 this week, the team at Serious Woo thought it would be helpful to share some of the behaviours we witness in our experiential workshops around critical conversations in mental health.


Even if we have a strong understanding of mental health issues, it can be extremely challenging to start a conversation with a colleague around it. It’s an unknown and it can be complicated to navigate.

What we understand confidently in theory, can be very different in practice. We must consider our colleague’s state of mind, our own triggers and the many different ways someone may respond to this type of personal question.

As corporate actors, we have simulated hundreds of mental health conversations with people managers, executives and human resource professionals as well as first aid officers who have undergone mental health training.

Irrespective of background and content knowledge, a number of patterns of behaviour have emerged in these conversations. Here are a few things to be aware of that we have observed in our experiential workshops on starting mental health conversations in the workplace. 


1.    Choose a location to hold the conversation that provides you and your colleague enough physical space to feel secure and protected.

Sometimes we are so nervous about embarking on the conversation that we forget the impact of the space we choose and the layout of the room.

Initiating a conversation like this can be very confronting. Ensure that the space is private with no intrusions. Providing enough space between you and your colleague to feel connected but not confronted is important.


2.    Be VERY comfortable with silence.

It can take a long time for someone to divulge personal information to anyone, let alone a work colleague. Ensure that you leave a lot of time for the person to collect their thoughts and decide whether they will and can respond. 


3.   Don’t promise things that you may not be able to keep

It is very easy to make seemingly reasonable promises to your colleague to ease them into a conversation such as complete confidentiality, your availability etc. Especially when you see someone is in distress. YOU ARE HUMAN AFTER ALL. Be aware of both your legal obligations and managing your own personal wellbeing.

There could be a time when you need to disclose to another member of staff about the situation for the safety of that employee or others.


4.    Strike a balance between concern and policy

It can be very hard to strike a balance between the personal and your professional obligations. Especially when a colleague’s behaviour may be impacting you and your team’s workload.

Focusing on policy in a conversation will generally lead to a lack of disclosure. Focusing on concern can often lead to a lack of boundaries and process for both sides, paving the way for problems around expectation management in the future. 


5.    Don’t plan for just one conversation 

Disclosure does not come without trust. If you enter into a conversation expecting to achieve a certain result or find out a certain piece of information, you may be disappointed.

It often takes several conversations for someone with a mental health issue to disclose an issue to anyone. Understand that the process may take some time before your colleague is ready to share any of their situation with you.


6.    Knowledge is important, experience makes the difference.

Understanding a list of useful questions to ask a colleague that may be struggling with a mental illness is different from being experienced in having these conversations.

Having practical experience allows us to understand our own triggers, how different people’s responses impact us, being aware of our body language during a challenging conversation, breath and myriad other issues that may arise.


Headsup has collated some advice for starting a conversation with a colleague: https://www.headsup.org.au/supporting-others/starting-a-conversation

Experiential workshops around workplace mental health conversations allow First Aid officers, HR consultants and people managers a safe "real life" experience working with professionally designed scenarios and trained corporate actors.

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Victoria, Australia

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