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Four ways to support a colleague with a mental health problem

13 September 2019

As communications professionals we’re often called upon in a crisis and thought of as the creative problem solvers who can handle anything thrown our way.

While many of us thrive on the ever-changing expectations of our working day, we all know that some days can be more difficult than others. And when one in four of us experiences a mental health problem in any given year, it’s vital that we can have open conversations about mental health at work.

Here are four ways to support a colleague

1. Having that first conversation about mental health

It may seem difficult to broach the subject of mental health with a colleague but it’s very important. Here are some tips to make it less daunting:

  • Find ways to talk about mental health that work for you. Do you have a friend or family member who has a mental health problem? Then talking about them might be a good way of starting a dialogue, or you could discuss celebrities who are talking about their mental health in the media.
  • Often, it’s easier to talk side by side, rather than face-to-face as it feels more informal. You could suggest going for a walk outside the office so you’re walking side by side. Being in a neutral surrounding could help them to be more open to talking about mental health away from other colleagues.
  • Talking about mental health problems won’t make them any more likely to experience it. Actually, being open about it might mean they feel comfortable asking for help sooner, even with relatively sensitive subjects like self-harm and suicide. But also do be respectful if they don’t want to talk about it.

2. What to say when a colleague comes back to work after time off

It can feel awkward to ask a colleague about their time off work but actually it’s likely your colleague will be grateful that you’ve brought it up as ignoring it can make them feel more isolated. Here are some tips:

  • Simply asking how they are can really help
  • Be respectful if they don’t want to talk about it
  • If they’re not ready to open up, small, kind gestures like making them a cup of tea can help them feel part of the team again

3. How to help if a colleague seems stressed

We all respond to stress in different ways and some express it more outwardly than others. If you feel like a colleague is more stressed than usual, and it’s been going on a while, it could be a sign of a mental health problem. Here’s how you can help:

  • Simply ask how they’re doing. In fact, ask twice. Many people feel that just because someone asks them how they are it doesn’t mean they really want to know, and some just don’t want to be a burden. That’s why we launched our ‘Ask Twice’ campaign – the simple act of asking again, with interest, shows a genuine willingness to talk and listen.
  • You may want to ask them how they’re doing away from other people. Why not ask them to join you for a cup of tea in the kitchen or outside the office?
  • If you have a good relationship, try to find out what changes you as a manager, or your organisation could make to help them manage their stress.

4. What to do when someone you manage has a mental health problem

Almost one in three of us has experienced a mental health problem whilst in employment. Here are some tips on how you can help them:

  • Don’t feel you need to be an expert. Simply listening and not judging can be one of the most significant things you can do.
  • Take their lead; show an interest but respect that they may not be ready to have this conversation so be patient.
  • In the longer term, regular catch ups and supervision can help you both to recognise stress or other warning signs. Consider any adjustments you may need to make to support them, such as flexible working.

This case study is part of CharityComms’ Wellbeing guide for comms professionals.

Lara Cerroni

communication manager, Time to Change

Lara is the communication manager at Time to Change, a social movement campaigning to change the way we all think and act about mental health problems. She has worked in communications for more than 15 years in the private, public and charity sectors.