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ATD Blog

How to Have Workplace Conversations About Mental Health

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Mental health used to be a taboo subject, even among friends and family, and it certainly was not a matter discussed in the workplace. Those days, fortunately, are beginning to fade. However, mental health is still a topic that is personal and can be difficult to broach, so it requires understanding what actions to take and which actions to avoid.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines mental health as including “our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices.” In “Engage in Mental Health and Well-Being,” Catherine Wemette provides guidance on how to have conversations about mental health and well-being in the workplace.

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Getting Started

As a talent development (TD) professional, you often have connections with employees that others may not. Staff may look to you for your expertise on an array of subjects. “That can be overwhelming, especially when it comes to mental health. More often than not, simply asking a question and showing you genuinely care will be enough to start the conversation, even if not with the perfect words, so that’s where to start,” writes Wemette.

Active Listening

Active listening is an important part of the conversations around mental health and well-being. One tool to use is to offer minimal encouragement, which can include nodding in response to what is said, giving a small smile, or murmuring mm-hmm. These actions can inspire the speaker to continue sharing without indicating you agree with what is being said.

Active listening can also include reflection—that is, echoing to the speaker what you heard them say, using different words, or using open-ended questions, which give the speaker a chance to expound on what they’ve said.

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Inclusivity

You may have heard that loneliness is our current culture’s kryptonite. Combatting loneliness isn’t about creating chances for people to be together; we can feel alone amid a group of people. It’s about creating connection. “Opportunities for staff to socialize and get to know one another are not at odds with the real work; they are part of the foundational work to increase employees’ engagement and mental well-being,” writes Wemette.

Positive Example and Providing Resources

Leaders lead by example, whether intentionally or not. One way that managers and leaders can make a positive difference is by taking time off and by sharing how they disconnect and tend to their own well-being. Further, leaders can dedicate funding to mental health and wellness programs to reduce stigma.

A Word of Warning

As with diversity, compliance, and a host of other topics, addressing mental health is not a one-and-done training event. Nor is it enough to simply provide employees with a list of resources to use.

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TD professionals can work with leadership to launch surveys or conduct focus groups to learn about the pressure points of employees so they know better how to support staff.

Further, TD professionals and other leaders need to remember that a one-size-fits-all approach is ineffective. People’s comfort level in talking about mental health and prior experiences will vary. Ensure that employees have many ways to access wellness information and to take part in critical conversations.

It’s Not Going to Be Perfect

We’re all going to make mistakes when it comes to initiating conversations around mental health. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take that step.

We can continue to read, volunteer, and share our perspectives to further our own—and our organization’s—learning on the topic to take better care of ourselves and others.

About the Author

Patty Gaul is a senior writer/editor for the Association for Talent Development (ATD).

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