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3. Talking about mental health

Good relationships are based on openness, trust and respect. Regular conversations between managers and their team members can identify ways to enable an employee to be healthy, safe and productive—while maintaining confidentiality about personal health circumstances. This applies to people living with mental health conditions and those who are in a carers role.

Why it matters

Managers are in a unique position to recognise when an employee may be struggling and not functioning well at work. Having an early exploratory conversation is important because you may be able to provide some early workplace support which helps get things back on track. This can also encourage the employee to get help from their support networks, such as family, friends or medical practitioners.

Like any other health or personal issue, an employee makes a choice about talking with their manager about their mental health. Employees are not required to disclose any mental health information. Your conversation needs to be an expression of concern and observation of what you are noticing about their functioning at work—it should be based on observable behaviour in the workplace.

How it’s done

Be open and approachable. The culture in your team will need to be trusting to support an employee to disclose personal information.

Recognise early signs of mental ill health including changes in workplace behaviours, declining work performance, increased absence or excessive hours at work, uncharacteristic behaviours, distress or low morale.

Have an exploratory conversation about your concern. Make your first response an exploratory and empathic conversation indicating what you are noticing at work, expressing genuine concern and offering support. You can ask “Are you OK?” or some version of that question, but be prepared to follow up for an answer such as “No, actually I don’t think I am”. Demonstrate empathy by expressing concern, and having the conversation in a private location (like a closed office or a quiet coffee shop), so you can give your full attention.

Employees are more likely to disclose they have a mental health condition if:

  • they are confident that what they say will be treated with respect and in confidence
  • they believe their manager and colleagues will support them and respond appropriately to their needs
  • they are confident that harassment and discrimination will not be tolerated by the organisation.

A four step approach

Step 1: Make contact

  • Arrange a meeting time
  • Allow sufficient time for a confidential discussion
  • Prepare—work out what you want to say and what you want to achieve
  • Choose a suitable location—private and confidential.

Step 2: Explore the issues

  • Ask open questions, listen carefully, be attentive
  • State the behaviour you have observed, e.g., ‘I have noticed that you appear distracted, is everything OK?’
  • Define the issues and discuss.

Step 3: Develop options and offer support

  • Explore what the person wants to do, e.g. could workplace adjustments be made
  • Consider options in relation to operational demands
  • Work together to come up with solutions
  • Gently and constructively engage the person if they keep coming up with barriers.

Step 4: Agree on action

  • Decide on a course of action
  • Define and agree on clear, specific steps
  • Follow up at an agreed time, review, and provide feedback.

Sometimes it may take more than one approach before the employee engages in conversation. Thus, it is important that the manager does not simply give up after an initial unsuccessful attempt.

Stay in touch particularly if the employee is off work—maintain a connection with the workplace. If your relationship has become strained, you can do this through a nominated contact in your human resources area. If someone is returning after an absence due to ill health, have the conversation (a ‘welcome back’ discussion) about how you can support them to be engaged and productive at work including through any flexible work arrangements, or other reasonable adjustments.

Respect employee privacy. If an employee talks to you about their mental health, ask them what they would like you to do with the information, such as what to tell colleagues, and ask how the workplace can support them. Stigma surrounding mental illness may prevent people from feeling comfortable about how mental health issues will be handled at work. You cannot talk about an employee’s mental health condition with other members of the team or anyone else, unless that employee has given you permission. If there is an impact on the team, ask the employee what they would like you to tell their colleagues. This may be just that they are currently unwell and what work arrangements have been put in place.

Follow up the conversation. You may want to set some action items, for example to check back with the employee again in a week’s time.

What if I am worried about the employee’s health? Personal information will need to be kept confidential unless the employee agrees for you to disclose it to another person. The exception to this is if you are genuinely worried about a work health and safety risk, such as harm to an individual. In this case seek assistance from your human resources team, Employee or Manager Assistance Programs or emergency health providers.

Information privacy laws

Information about an employee’s mental health must be kept confidential and private. When a person tells you about their mental health condition in the work context, you cannot tell anyone else without their consent. You can generally only use the information for the purpose they told you—such as to make reasonable adjustments.

APS managers are bound by the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth). The Information Privacy Principles in that Act apply to all APS agencies. The two most relevant principles are Principle 10 (Limits on the use of personal information) and Principle 11 (Limits on the disclosure of personal information).

Useful tools

Other relevant information sheets: