Questions to ask to start a mental health conversation

Not knowing how to approach the topic of mental health with a team member can be challenging. But now more than ever, with anxiety and depression on the rise and BeyondBlue experiencing a 30% uptick in calls to their mental health support line, it’s clear that we need to commit to asking courageous questions.

Whether you’re leading a team of 30 or 5, it’s useful to know how to approach this topic so that you can start a conversation as soon as you notice signs of change in the mental state of your people. That way, you’ll be able to provide timely support and potentially even save a life.

Before we get to the questions to ask to start a mental health conversation, let’s take a look at some of the warning signs that someone may be struggling with poor mental health while working remotely.

 

Mental health warning signs to look out for:
  • Change in tone of voice 
  • Tiredness / commenting on lack of sleep
  • Showing up late to virtual meetings
  • Cancelling on virtual meetings last minute
  • Being scattered in their conversations
  • Sense of cynicism or ‘what’s the point’ in their language (particularly if this is unusual for them) 
  • Struggling to meet deadlines or complete tasks
  • Minimal or no interaction with group discussions
  • Withdrawing from connecting with the rest of the team 

 

Questions to ask to start a mental health conversation:

 

“How have you been finding working from home? Is there anything you are struggling with?”

Working from home can result in heightened feelings of loneliness and disconnection, especially for those who thrive in a room of people and previously would be surrounded by a large team. With this question you’ll be able to gently start a conversation about what they might be enjoying and what they might be missing about working from home. If there are flags this conversation can give your team member the opportunity to share what additional support they may need but haven’t yet requested.

 

“I’ve noticed that you’ve [insert behaviour], how are you feeling at the moment?”

If you’re concerned about the mental health of one of your team members it’s likely because you’ve noticed some changes in their behaviour. Whether it’s been a change in their tone of voice on the phone or they’ve been turning up late to virtual meetings or cancelling at the last minute, this can be a great starting point for a mental health conversation.

By discussing specific, observable behaviours you’ll give the other person clarity around where this topic of conversation has come from, rather than it feeling like it’s come out of nowhere. This will give them the opportunity to share if something has been bothering them personally, professionally or to open up if they are experiencing mental health challenges.

 

“It’s been a challenging year so far, how are you finding it’s having an impact on you?”

This is a great question to ask to ease into a conversation about mental health, particularly this year, as it acknowledges the fact that it’s been a tough year for many people, particularly when it comes to the uncertainty of work. While the question is general enough not to be intrusive, it also will give the other person space to open up about the different ways they’ve been impacted. Amongst COVID-19 what we know is that life is continuing in other ways. There may be important events or life experiences that have had to be postponed that you didn’t know about, or family that they’ve been separated from that has contributed to their low mood.

 

“Is there anything you are feeling uncertain about in terms of your role or the work we do that you’d like to ask me about?”

Our work is closely linked to our identity and our sense of security. Much of this has been shifted and impacted, some of it very quickly with restrictions coming into place in various locations. This can leave people feeling insecure about what impact the changes will have on their work. Asking this question provides an open forum to talk about any fears or concerns that someone might be harbouring but haven’t yet shared. Even if you don’t have the answers, that’s okay, talking openly about these fears is what is important here. 

The following are really useful resources for you to share and encourage others to explore if you find they are currently struggling. It’s completely normal to be feeling overwhelmed in the current context. 

 

Mental health conversation resources:

 

Preparing for the conversation:

R U Okay at Work Resources – https://www.ruok.org.au/work

 

Support services:

Beyond Blue – https://www.beyondblue.org.au/

Lifeline – https://www.lifeline.org.au/

Headspace – https://headspace.org.au/

 

Final thoughts

Starting the conversation, while daunting, is a fantastic step forward in ensuring the wellbeing of the people in your organisation. Even if the person isn’t quite ready to open up completely, simply by acknowledging and providing space for a conversation you’ll show your team member that you’re someone they can call on when they are ready to talk about any challenges they may be facing. It can be helpful to share some of the things that you are navigating and how you are feeling in the current environment too.

If your team member does open up during the conversation and you find that they need additional support, begin by mapping out some first steps which may include a visit to their GP to organise a mental health plan. Check in with your team member regularly after the conversation and if possible, put them in touch with your Employee Assistance Program.