How to have meaningful conversations at work

How to have meaningful conversations at work

5 ways managers can talk to employees about mental health

BY Marcela Slepica, 5 min READ

Suicide remains a prominent concern for Australians, taking over 2,800 lives per year and being the leading cause of death among 15-44 year olds. This R U OK Day, leading workplace mental health experts are advising workplaces to talk in meaningful conversations to try and identify and help avoid potential incidences of suicide.

“Most adults spend around one third of their waking hours at work, so companies can play a pivotal role in providing key health information and intervening if an employee is struggling with mental health or if they are having suicidal thoughts,” says Marcela Slepica, Clinical Director at AccessEAP a leading not for profit provider of Employee Assistance Programs.

“Most people at risk show warning signs and managers, especially are in a unique position to identify team members who are struggling, so knowing what to look out for and where to find help is crucial. While managers may feel overwhelmed by the perceived responsibility, it is important to remember that there is professional help available.”

Marcela offers her tips on identifying when and how to have a conversation with an employee, and what you can do if you’re concerned about their mental health. 

1. Know your team

Ensure that you maintain regular contact with your team and get to know your employees. Greet them, have interactions with them. This helps develop important connections but you will then also be in a position to notice if there are any changes in their behaviour, for example, withdrawal, irritability, unexplained absences or a drop in performance at work. Such changes may be indicators that the employee is going through some emotional difficulty and finding it hard to manage.

2. Have a conversation if you are concerned

A simple conversation will clarify your concerns with the employee and may be a first step to helping them find support. Make sure the conversation occurs in a discrete and private place. Be clear that you are concerned. Give specific examples. Ask “Are you okay?” “Is something concerning you?” “Do you want to talk about it?” “Can I do anything to help?”

Read: The rise and rise of suicide: we must remove the stigma of mental illness

3. Listen

Listen to what the person is saying without interrupting. At the end, summarise what you have heard to check that your understanding is correct. Do not make judgements or assumptions about what they have said. If you’re unsure about any comments they have made, clarify with an open question that allows the person to talk in more detail about their issue, rather than providing a simple yes or no.

4. Explore options

The employee may indicate that there are issues at work that could be helped by making some changes at work. In that case, you may wish to explore specific solutions. Do not go into problem-solving about personal issues. Remember you are their manager and not their counsellor. Offer empathy, but at the same time, know when to stop and offer professional help.

5. Know when to escalate

If an employee makes any reference to suicide or self-harm, ask them directly “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?” Unless the answer is a direct and clear “No”, immediately escalate to an appropriate person. Your options may include:

  • A Manager/HR
  • An existing support person, for example, their GP or family member
  • EAP Manager Support Hotline
  • If it is an emergency, or the person is at immediate risk of harm to themselves or others, call 000.

There are resources and programs to help you learn how to support suicidal loved ones, and crisis support lines to call:

Anyone seeking support and information about mental health can contact beyondblue on 1300 22 46 36. For information about suicide and crisis support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Callback Service on 1300 659 467

AccessEAP is a leading Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provider in Australia. They have been assisting companies across Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia since 1989 in supporting a mentally healthy workplace. 

Read next: How to take a guilt-free mental health day even when you’re self-employed


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