Chief of Research, Workforce Productivity, Organizational Performance
This op-ed was originally published in The Globe and Mail on January 25, 2019.
How do you support a work colleague who you think is experiencing a mental health issue and who doesn’t appear open to talking or accepting help?
Let’s begin with a case study example to provide context.
Over the past two weeks, you’ve noticed some changes in the behaviour of a peer you care about and enjoy working with—things you’ve never seen before that lead you to suspect that something is off. The behaviour raising your concerns includes:
- Loss of interest in the quality of their work
- Noticeable drop in their productivity
- Lack of co-operation with colleagues
- Being atypically late for meetings and with completing work
- Increased challenges in decision making, remembering things and concentrating
Based on your observations and personal experience in supporting a family member who developed a mental health issue, you become concerned about them. Out of that concern, you ask if you can help. During a quiet moment when it’s just the two of you in a confidential space, you say, “Hi. Just checking in: I don’t want to be pushy, but are you okay? Is there anything going on that’s upsetting you?” Their response is quick and short, “Everything is fine.” You reply, “Are you sure? I’m here if you need anything at all.” Their response is “Yes,” and they walk away.
The person says they don’t want any help, and you’re unsure what you can do from this point.
WHAT NOT TO DO
- Make direct, judgmental statements (for example: “I know something is wrong”).
- Show frustration or disapproval with their response.
- Engage in water cooler talk with other colleagues to share to your concerns (for example: “I think they have a mental health issue and they don’t seem to want help.”)
- Avoid or disengage.
- Cover up or make excuses for them (for example: Telling a peer they had car trouble and they’ll be in soon).
- Play the role of a mental health therapist. If the peer begins to share that they’re struggling and your hunch is right that they’re having a hard time with their mental health, it’s not your role to try to fix things. Recommend treatments or create an action plan.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
- Be kind, patient and non-judgmental.
- Accept that your role is to be a supportive colleague. Your peer is responsible for their mental health; you can’t make them get help. But you can create the conditions that make them feel they have a safe, trusted person to talk to.
- Reinforce your commitment—in a respectful way—to supporting them by regularly checking in and asking if they’re okay.
- Maintain your expectations for them to do their share of work. It’s up to them to tell you if they need your help.
- Take a two-day mental health first-aid course, so you have more skills to help this peer, another peer, a friend or a family member.
- Be familiar with the different benefits offered by your employee-assistance program, so you can help them understand the services that could help.
- If you become concerned for their physical safety or that of others, immediately report your concerns and the things you have noticed to your direct supervisor. Managers have a duty to check in with an employee if they directly observe or are told their behaviour is affecting their quality of work or that there may be a safety concern.
But ultimately, unless there is a safety concern, there are limits to how much you can help. Think about the following: A person falls down a set of stairs and breaks their leg. Paramedics arrive but can only assist if the person accepts their help. If the person says they don’t want any help, the paramedics can’t force themselves on them.
Mental health is similar. We can’t force ourselves on someone, but as a peer, we can show we care and want to help. And when someone trusts a person they’re confiding in, that person can help them get past any stigma of asking for help.