Talking to Co-Workers About Their Mental Health: A How-To Guide

We’ve said it before, and we will say it again–mental health awareness shouldn’t be encouraged for just one month out of the year. That’s why we wanted to share some helpful tips that you can use year-round for talking to your co-workers about their mental health while keeping things respectful and professional.

Mental health can be a sticky subject–especially at work. But the topic of mental health and the ways people deal with it is slowly but surely becoming less taboo. Think about it: just a few years ago, many of us kept quiet about our struggles because of the stigmas that surround the topic. Today, we see instances of these stigmas subsiding everywhere we look. There’s even a #MyFavoriteMeds post trend going around to end mental health medication shaming.

Often, people struggle in silence, and when it comes to the workplace, the topic is politely avoided altogether. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Some may sit back insouciantly because it’s “not their problem,” but in the workplace, it can become the whole team’s problem. Some of us spend more time with our co-workers than we do with our friends and family! Sometimes the best thing to do is talk about it and clear the air. But first, we need to know how to spot the signals that a co-worker needs support.

Signs A Co-Worker Is Struggling With Their Mental Health

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or empty mood
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Fatigue
  • Decreased productivity
  • Morale problems
  • Absenteeism
  • Reduced appetites or weight loss, or increased appetite and weight gain

Knowing some of the symptoms can help clue you in on what your co-workers may be going through. But, unless you’re a trained clinician, you can’t diagnose them–so don’t try.

What you can do, however, is be there for them. Start a conversation. It’s easy to be a caring colleague without crossing the line and declaring yourself a workplace psychologist. When you are worried about your teammate, DO these things before jumping to conclusions:

  1. Steer clear of making an uninformed diagnosis
  2. Compare their behavior to your own
  3. Understand the relationship you have with the person
  4. Observe
  5. Don’t spread around rumors
  6. Listen
  7. Create a caring culture that encourages open communication

After following the steps above, the next thing to do is talk to your colleague. Don’t talk at them or go at it confrontationally–do it softly and empathetically. There’s a simple way to go about talking to your teammate, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy.

To alleviate some of that stress, a Psychology Today article suggests using the “observe, ask and actively listen, and refer and support” protocol (also known as O.A.R.S.). O.A.R.S. is a helpful way to discuss mental health with a co-worker who may be struggling.

Here’s How To Follow O.A.R.S

  • Observe ‚Äì notice changes in behavior
  • Ask and Actively Listen ‚Äì ask open-ended questions, be patient, be curious, discuss the impact, and focus on collaborative problem-solving
  • Refer ‚Äì suggest resources in the workplace or community to help (this is a GREAT time to educate yourself on employee assistance programs or support that your company offers/covers!)
  • Support ‚Äì continue to communicate, encourage them, and set healthy objectives (but NEVER try to push a co-worker into the EAPs you just educated yourself about!)

The “Don’ts” of O.A.R.S.

  • Don‚Äôt interrupt
  • Don‚Äôt minimize or dismiss their feelings
  • Don‚Äôt try to fix or offer advice
  • Don‚Äôt enable
  • Don‚Äôt avoid talking about the impact
  • Don‚Äôt make assumptions or jump to conclusions

The “Dos” of O.A.R.S.

  • Make sure it‚Äôs a good day for YOU and for THEM
  • Set the conversation up for success
  • Play it out in your head before actually doing it
  • Know the facts
  • Determine your objective
  • Build trust, rapport, a sense of safety, and an open dialogue
  • Prepare for resistance
  • Listen without judgment
  • Speak to them as soon as possible

Assisting a co-worker who you think may be struggling with mental health can be difficult, which is why most in the workplace avoid it. But we all know avoidance isn’t the answer. As a colleague, manager, or an ally, you can start helping before the issue escalates. The sooner you speak, the better.

The stigma around mental health is trivial– but it’s OK to need help and it’s also OK to offer help.

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