Employers need to become active listeners to improve mental health at work

Time to Talk Day takes place every February and encourages people to open-up about their emotional wellbeing, but in a workplace setting this can be challenging. Despite 80 percent of employers believing employees would feel comfortable talking about their mental health, only 5 percent of employees would do so. Clearly there’s a disconnect between talkers and listeners which needs to be addressed if we’re to improve mental health at work.

Here’s how employers can share the burden of responsibility when it comes to creating an open dialogue…


 ‘Active listening’

Fear of discrimination, a lack of shared language and a sense they will not be listened to all contribute to employees keeping quiet about their mental health. To address this, it’s important employers demonstrate ‘active listening’, a conscious effort to hear not only the words a person is saying, but also the message they’re trying to convey and what it means to them.

Using techniques such as paraphrasing and reflecting on what the speaker has said, shows you are actively engaged in the conversation and listening to understand rather than just waiting for your turn to talk. You should see yourself as a ‘sounding board’ for discussion and try not to derail the conversation with your own thoughts or judgements.


The power of words

According to The Journal of Positive Psychology, we should rethink the way we use language when talking about mental health. It’s suggested that by avoiding purely diagnostic terms for conditions such as anxiety and depression, we can help lift the stigma. Instead, we should embrace more generalised discussions that reflect the spectrum of human emotion; ‘labels’ can be unhelpful if a person doesn’t feel they fit the definition. A wider vocabulary makes discussions feel less judgemental and allows for a more meaningful exploration of an individual’s distress.

Employers should also be mindful of the everyday language used by employees and how it can reflect their mental state. Those with symptoms of mental ill health often use negative descriptions and absolutist words to talk about their state of mind. As well as verbal cues, it’s important to be aware of facial expressions and tone of voice can be insightful indicators about how your employee is feeling.


Don’t just wait your turn

If an employee has summoned the courage to disclose to you their mental health status, it’s important you understand the courage this has taken and are sensitive in your response. Don’t second-guess them or interrupt to talk about your own or someone else’s experience or diagnosis. Remember, this is not your story to tell, so allow the conversation to flow naturally at a pace.

As it’s not your position to diagnose or treat, it’s important to encourage employees who are clearly experiencing emotional distress to speak to their doctor, CBT expert or psychiatrist as a next step, as well as recommending any workplace benefits or programmes which could support their recovery and build emotional resilience in the long term.


Take action

Listening to individuals is paramount and can play a major role in destigmatising mental ill health but encouraging an open dialogue across the whole workforce is important too. It’s widely reported 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health problem at some point in our lives, but employers need to take a ‘4 in 4’ approach to emotional wellbeing. That’s because every employee has mental health to protect and enhance.

One way to broaden the conversation is to appoint Mental Health Champions across all levels of the workforce, who can oversee the development and implementation of a mental health strategy and be key figures for employees to speak to.

Investing in measures such as emotional literacy training can also help to empower all staff to have meaningful conversations about mental health and spot the signs someone may be struggling. At Nuffield Health, we recently introduced our own emotional literacy training programme. We found that following completion of the training, 94 percent of participants reported feeling more confident in supporting a colleague with signs of emotional distress, while 98 percent would recommend the training to a colleague.

By incorporating mental health support into your company policies, you can effectively demonstrate your commitment to emotional wellbeing, as well as help to show that when it comes to your employees’ mental health, you’re listening.


Brendan Street is Professional Head, Emotional Wellbeing at Nuffield Health