Mental Health: How to Encourage Employees to Seek Help When They Need It

by: | May 12, 2017

Some conversations are more difficult than others. One of the most challenging situations is having to approach a colleague, friend or family member who may be struggling with their mood or behaviour but lacks insight or is in denial about their circumstance. You may be concerned for their well-being, but what’s the right way to encourage them to seek help? This is a difficult conversation, made even more difficult when initiating it with an employee.

Remember: To seek help is hard.

We are all familiar with these situations: colleagues who are constantly worried and anxious; employees who miss work due to lack of general motivation; and others who are irritable and very negative. We wonder whether or not to suggest they seek help, but hold back because it is hard to know what to say. We do not want them to worry about their employment if they already seem stressed.

However, the suffering and loss of productivity is real. In a given week, at least 500,000 employed Canadians are unable to work due to mental health problems. The cost of a disability leave for a mental health illness is about double the cost of a leave due to a physical illness. There is clear evidence that promotion, education, prevention and early intervention show very positive returns on investment. And, that prevention often starts with a difficult conversation.

Unfortunately, the general advice about how to approach these situations is flawed and likely to worsen the situation. Below are a few common strategies to avoid.

Do not ‘sandwich’ the conversation.

When giving negative feedback or having a difficult conversation, experts often recommend starting and ending with positive feedback—in effect ‘sandwiching’ the negative feedback between compliments. Unfortunately, this often comes across as disingenuous and even the positive feedback is diminished by this approach.

As with all difficult conversations, a direct and genuine conversation that focuses on the issue at hand is the most respectful and effective strategy. Be open, frank and clear about your concerns.

Avoid starting with open-ended questions.

Oftentimes, it is recommended that such conversations be started with open-ended questions such as “How do you feel about your anxiety in social situations?” This will most often backfire. Most will minimize their struggles in response to such questions, forcing you to have to directly contradict them.

Instead, avoid questions and start with a statement like, “I am concerned about your mood.” Then, follow up with an empathetic observation, like the following: “I have noticed your anxiety has been causing you grief lately.” Speaking in the affirmative and waiting for a response is often more effective than using questions.

Do not wait for the opportune moment.

One of the most common pieces of advice is to wait until the moment is ‘right.’ The suggestion is to set the conversation up for success: choose the right setting and moment, and make the necessary preparation to help increase receptiveness. Although this advice is well-grounded, it tends to get hijacked by the hesitancy that is inherent in having uncomfortable conversations.

It is important to avoid having such conversations immediately before deadlines or moments of crisis. However, remember that the moment is never perfect and delaying the conversation will only make things more difficult. Start talking when there is an opportunity to do so, and do it in a few stages to make things easier.

Do not involve other employees.

Experts typically suggest that providing evidence of concern from other employees, or including them in the conversation, creates more motivation for seeking help. However, it is easy to see that such an intervention will feel like an ambush and only worsen the feeling that others are being negatively judgemental. These conversations need to happen one-on-one and face-to-face.

Here are 2 steps to use when considering talking to someone about their difficulties:

  1. Start with introspection. It is crucial that you take the time to look in the mirror and ask yourself why you feel the employee needs to change their behaviour and mindset. Are you certain it’s not the workplace, the relationships or the HR policies that need to be improved? These situations are often complex, and it is easy to frame a wrong fit or unrealistic workplace expectations as the employee needing help with their emotions. There is strong evidence that businesses that create thriving workplaces have happier employees and are more successful.
  2. Start the conversation. It will not feel easy but if it comes from a place of concern for the other person’s well-being, it will be much easier than you suspect. This is crucial: if framed as a loss of productivity for the company, the situation can easily spiral out of control—the last thing you want is for your employees to end up on long-term disability. Those who have daily struggles with their mood and behaviours often welcome the empathy that comes from someone else noticing their struggle and wanting them to feel better.

I often see patients who are seeking help because their managers suggested they come and talk with me about their difficulties. Almost always, they had already been considering it and needed that extra motivation to take action. If patients do go off work, I have consistently found that those who identified their employers as empathetic were most likely to insist on an early return to work. If there is someone in your workplace who you feel would benefit from mental health counselling, start the conversation today.

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