How Do You Build Trust with Employees for Sensitive Discussions?

by | Dec 17, 2021 | Health & Wellbeing | 0 comments

Does anybody ever answer the question “How are you?” truthfully?

I’m sure we could all agree that encouraging people to talk about their mental health isn’t easy, and it’s even more difficult in the workplace.

Yet this element of people management is essential in any mental health strategy, and getting it wrong can have catastrophic consequences on the levels of trust in the workplace.

How can you gain confidence ‘in confidence’?

Early intervention

Even with the best mental health strategy in place with proactive and preventative action, it is likely that employees will still, at some point, deal with poor mental health and wellbeing.

This makes early intervention a key step.

Rather than letting poor mental health escalate into sickness absence or a crisis, it can be managed sensitively and proactively.

This relies on an awareness of potential workplace and external triggers, and signs of poor mental health.

          Workplace triggers

Most employees will be contending with a range of personal and workplace triggers, which is why it’s important to spot the signs.

Possible workplace triggers could include:

          Working long hours without breaks

          Working in isolation

          Lack of job security

          Unrealistic expectations/deadlines

          Stigma in the workplace or a lack of management support

          Poor communication

          Negative relationships

It is important to note that an employee may be experiencing multiple workplace triggers that have a negative correlation with their mental health.

External factors that can also impact an employee’s mental health include:



          Experiencing stigma

          Social elements (e.g., poverty, debt, housing conditions)


          Personal responsibilities (e.g., being a long-term carer)

          Drug and alcohol misuse

          Physical (e.g., neurological conditions that may impact mood – this may need further discussion to ensure physical causes have been addressed before considering treatment for mental health)

 You know the triggers… now what?

Line managers are integral to sensitive conversations about employee mental health because it’s likely that the line manager will know the employee well and be able to spot signs of poor mental health or the triggers that relate to it.

The three elements of poor mental health are:

          Physical: headaches, appetite changes, sleep pattern changes, fatigue, digestive issues

          Psychological: low mood, lack of motivation, loss of humour, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, memory lapses, suicidal thoughts

          Behavioural: risk-taking, overworking, restlessness, irritability, increased smoking and drinking, lateness, increased absence, issues with colleagues

Observing one of the above indicators does not equal poor mental health immediately, which is why one of the most important principles to work under is to not make assumptions.

 Building trust

Whether a mental health condition is disclosed, or observed, having the conversation sooner rather than later is vital.

It is essential that the person facilitating the conversation makes time for it, but more importantly, that they listen.

The problem is, if an employee doesn’t trust a line manager or the individual facilitating the conversation, nothing positive will come from the discussion.

This rests on the workplace culture and the line manager’s approachability together – even if a line manager is trustworthy, if a workplace stigmatises mental health, an employee is unlikely to want to open up about their mental health to anyone for fear of reprisal.

When engaging in discussions about mental health in the workplace, it’s important to remember that shying away from the topic further stigmatises it, so opening up a non-judgemental dialogue can generate trust.

 Starting the conversation

Firstly, conversations around such a sensitive topic should be conducted in a private, confidential environment – it goes without saying that the team meeting is not a good time to broach someone’s mental health.

One-to-one check-ins are a great opportunity for this, though ideally, these discussions will take place in a more neutral environment (if called into a private office, for example, the power imbalance and stress of an unexpected meeting may hinder the discussion).

CIPD suggests the following for conversations around mental health in the workplace:

          Begin by asking how the employee is

          Keep questions simple, open, and non-judgemental

          Avoid interruptions – turn off your phone and make sure colleagues cannot interrupt the conversation

          Encourage the employee by actively listening

          Show empathy and understanding, focusing on the person and not the problem

          Be prepared for silence

          Avoid making any assumptions

          Follow-up in writing, particularly on agreed actions or support

 What not to do

“I’ve noticed your performance has become extremely poor, what’s going on with you?”

The last thing that an employee will want or need to hear if they are experiencing poor mental health is negativity about their job performance.

Additionally, invalidating or dismissing their mental health is equally harmful.

If a change in their performance is the factor that leads to the discussion, it is important to put the person at the centre of this, rather than their performance – e.g., “I’ve noticed that you’ve been struggling to meet deadlines recently when you usually wouldn’t, is everything alright?”.

 The bottom line

Discussing mental health with an employee should be about addressing any work-related difficulties and making adjustments where possible to minimise or remove them.

There are multiple forms of support an employee can be encouraged to access internally and externally – their GP, HR, occupational health, mental health first aiders within the organisation, helplines – but what is vital is that employees know that they will be supported, which applies no matter what the sensitive topic might be.

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