5 Tips for Starting the Mental Health conversation @ Work

Everyone is affected by mental health. Not all in the same way and not all to the same degree, but we are all affected. About one in five people in Canada experience a mental health problem or illness, and by the time we reach the age of 40, about 50% of us will have or have had a mental illness. (CAMH, 2016)  The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified this impact, with  7 out of 10 people believing they will have a “serious mental health crisis” due to the pandemic. (CAMH, 2020) We have seen a drop in overall employee mental health in the workplace, with 81% of workers reporting that the pandemic negatively impacted their mental health. (CAMH, 2020) 

The significant impact of the pandemic on mental health has often been referred to as the “second pandemic,” just lingering in the background. Or maybe for some of us, it is not just lingering, but something we face each day.  While many leaders may have engaged in conversations early on in the pandemic, particularly about its impacts on mental health, as the pandemic wore on and we passed the one-year mark, many of us felt the strong desire for it to “just be over” or to “get on with life.” As leaders, we may have turned away from having a conversation because we are just tired. It feels uncomfortable. We may even feel like we are wading into unknown territory, particularly when it comes to mental health. Unfortunately, the less we talk about it, the more difficult it can become, and we may not recognize when a conversation is required. Some of the signs you might want to look for include:

  • changes in a person’s behaviour, mood or how they interact with others
  • difficulty making decisions, being organized or finding solutions
  • appearing tired, anxious, or withdrawn
  • changes in work output, motivation, or focus

As leaders, we are responsible for taking the lead, creating healthy and safe environments, and putting mental health on the table. Doing this helps our employees be authentic and bring their whole selves to work. However, as leaders, we might not know exactly what that looks like in real life (#IRL). So here are five tips on how to start a mental health conversation.

  1. Don’t hesitate to start the mental health conversation. However, before beginning the conversation, make sure you choose an appropriately quiet and private place and minimize distractions.  If possible, the discussion should happen in a neutral space and if they are remote workers, make sure you ask them if it is a good time to talk.
  2. Ask how your staff are doing and then listen and engage. Start the conversation with open-ended questions to encourage your staff person to share.  An open-ended question can’t usually be responded to with a one-word answer like, for example, “You don’t seem quite yourself today, tell me about what is happening with you?”

Once you ask the question, let your staff finish their thoughts without interrupting them. When they finish, you may want to respond by clarifying what they have said. This includes taking your team seriously and not minimize how they are feeling. To do this, avoid statements like “I’m sure you are just having a bad week.” Instead, acknowledge their feelings and experience and ask them how you can help.

  • Ensure their confidentiality, be honest and clear. If your staff person has personal information to share, it will be vital they are assured of confidentiality. If you need to discuss the situation outside of the initial conversation, make sure you discuss this with the individual and ask them what information you can share.
  • Share steps you take to maintain mental health and wellness and cope with stress. Sharing your story will help to break down stigma and build a bridge. It may also be helpful for you to know the services available through your organization before you start the conversation so that you can share this with your staff.
  • Keep the door open for future conversations. Let your staff know that you are here to listen and support. Acknowledge that how they might be feeling may not be resolved through one conversation. Let them know that they can reach out to you again if they need to talk again.


Kim Slade,

Howatt HR Consulting

Vice President, Customer Success