How are you? How to make mental health conversations happen at work

By Ashley Harshak

May 09, 2021

Talking about mental health in the workplace has always been important. However, the toll of a global pandemic on colleagues around the world has made it more important than ever before. I spoke to Dr Matthew Price, a former PA healthcare expert who’s now a Principal Clinical Psychologist, about how a simple question – ‘how are you?’ – can help make mental health conversations happen at work.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted or halted critical mental health services in 93 per cent of countries worldwide while the demand for mental health support is increasing, according to a new WHO survey. Loneliness is a key challenge that’s still rising. The Mental Health Foundation found that loneliness has increased from 10 per cent of those surveyed in March 2020 to 26 per cent in February 2021. Loneliness matters for mental health because connections with others help us cope with difficulties. Losing connections means less emotional support at a time of global crisis that has challenged almost everyone.

Troublesome thoughts stop us from talking

Our minds are excellent at giving us troublesome thoughts that stop us from talking about our mental health difficulties with colleagues. We often believe our busy colleagues don’t need to be burdened by our struggles. Or we worry about being judged if we show vulnerability – harming our reputation and career progression. Or we minimise our distress and criticise ourselves for struggling when other people ‘have things worse’. The list goes on.

A problem shared is a problem halved

As humans, we often have a tendency to:

  • be much more critical of ourselves than others
  • compare how we think and feel internally with how others appear to be externally.

These tendencies aren’t always a bad thing. They help us strive to achieve great things and continue to look for ways to learn and develop. But when we experience mental health difficulties, these tendencies can make it hard to be compassionate with ourselves.

By sharing our experiences with others, we allow them to offer us a different perspective and help us be kinder to ourselves. There’s a reason for the old saying “a problem shared is a problem halved”.

And by talking, we can feel validated as we put our internal thoughts and feelings into words and learn that we’re not alone in how we feel.

Normalising conversations about mental health

COVID-19 has taken a physical toll, but we are still calculating the emotional costs. Being isolated and disconnected from others has left many people feeling more anxious and lower than they have felt before. The good news is that if disconnection is the problem then the answer is connection. Asking 'how are you?' is one way you can re-ignite meaningful connections with your colleagues.

  1. Talking: we need to create a workplace culture where talking about mental health is the norm. The more we talk about it, the more readily we can identify when colleagues are struggling. Why do we relegate the question “how are you?” to a quick question in the corridor as we rush into our meetings? In doing so, we make it easy for troublesome thoughts to flourish – particularly when our response is inevitably a vague “not too bad, thanks, you?” We need a culture where such ‘small talk’ is viewed as ‘important talk’ and we create a space to meaningfully discuss how things are.
  2. Listening: we might worry that we won’t know what to do if a colleague does share honestly that they are struggling with their mental health. But there isn’t any action needed. We just need to listen. If a colleague doesn’t want to talk, that’s okay. We can let them know we’re there and ready to listen if they change their mind.

As this is Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, set yourself a challenge. Don’t dive into meetings. Ask how your colleagues are and take time to listen. And if someone asks how you are, genuinely reflect on whether anything is on your mind and be honest. If we role model talking about our own difficult thoughts and feelings, our colleagues will feel okay to do the same.

So, how are you?

About the authors

Ashley Harshak PA culture and leadership expert Ashley has over 24 years’ experience of advising senior leaders on their strategic people topics, working with organisations on their strategic leadership issues, ranging from board effectiveness, leadership team dynamics, executive succession planning, leadership coaching and development.

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