How to talk to colleagues about mental health and wellbeing | Education Support
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How to talk to colleagues about mental health and wellbeing

The skills to have healthy conversations about mental health and wellbeing are key to creating a culture where people feel valued, cared for and supported. It is not about having the answers, in fact it is the opposite; it is about asking open questions, showing you care, listening and showing empathy, withholding judgement and then asking what they can do, and you can do.

Asking open questions

We are not programmed to ask open questions. It is something that rarely comes naturally to people unless their parents/teachers have modelled this from an early age. People find it difficult to put this skill into practice even when they understand it intellectually; it is almost as if we are battling against our blue print of not wanting to find out more or challenge our ways of seeing things. 

Open questions open up our understanding of our world and others. It challenges our beliefs, assumptions and ways of thinking about the world. Open questions can get us to think differently, work out better ways to do things, think about what drives our behaviour and find solutions or ideas to many things.  

Here are some open questions (What, How, Tell me more, When, Who) you can ask to have healthy constructive conversations about wellbeing.  Try and avoid why questions as they can come across as being critical

  • How would you describe your wellbeing today, over the last month to a year? Give it a score of 1-10?
  • How would you describe your stress levels at the moment?
  • How would you describe your resilience?
  • How motivated are you at the moment?
  • What suggestions do you have to improve your wellbeing? What can you do, what can I do, what can the school or college do?
  • If you had to change one thing to improve your wellbeing what would it be?
  • E.g. I have noticed that you are leaving work most nights at 6.30pm. Tell me more about what is going on at the moment?

Showing you care

Asking the questions above and listening with empathy in a non-judgemental way is key. Also, if you say you will do something or address a concern then not doing so will erode trust and likely lead to the person thinking you don’t care. When people feel cared about, they feel safe and this is likely to minimise their flight or fight or stress hormones.

Listening, empathy and holding judgement

Active Listening is when you listen by:

  • Summarise or paraphrase e.g. so what you are saying is ... it sounds like...
  • Show empathy (summarise or reflect emotions) e.g. it sounds like you have had a really tough time with no one to help out.
  • Ask open questions to find out more though do limit them as if you ask too many it is hard to listen.  See above.
  • Show you are being attentive (good body language and eye contact; though if you are listening this will come naturally for most)
  • Hold back on what you want to say and the judgements you jump to. Practice Carl Roger’s Unconditional Positive Regard (observe your judgements; work out what you know factually and what you do not) - see Ladder of Inference diagram below. 

[1] The Ladder of Inference is taken from The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook by Peter Senge et al, published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing, and is based on the work of Chris Argyris and Robert Putnam.

Example: 

The Observable Data is I see someone crying. I may jump to the top of my ladder to think they are not coping, they are stressed and overwhelmed. They could be crying with joy! I need to acknowledge my jump in thinking and so when talking to the person start with the observable data and then ask open questions to find out more e.g. I can see you are crying, talk to me about how you are feeling.

Other factors to consider

  • Timing, is it the right time to talk for you or them?
  • Find a space that you cannot be overheard or interrupted
  • Do not take I’m fine as an answer say, “What do you mean by that?” or “Can you say more”
  • Don’t be tempted to rush to a solution or action, find out as much as possible before you get to this stage
  • It can be good to email actions that you have agreed if this is relevant e.g. I will do x, y, z by this deadline, you said you will do x, y z by this deadline
  • Set up a time to get back in touch especially if the person is struggling

If you are very concerned about someone’s wellbeing because they are at a crisis point e.g. if they are having a panic attack, cannot get out of bed, are weeping, seeing or hearing things that you cannot, they need to get professional help:

  • Encourage them to call our helpline for emotional support: 08000 562561
  • Call the doctor or take the person to see them
  • Take them to A&E if they are at risk to themselves or others e.g. if are having a panic attack that cannot be stopped by breathing exercises, if they are hearing or seeing things that you cannot or are suicidal (e.g. they have a plan to attempt suicide, or you are worried they will take action) or you feel are a risk themselves or others.