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How to talk with an employee or colleague about their mental health

Updated: Jan 5

Written by Gregg Taylor, Regional Director of FSEAP

Deciding to talk with someone out of concern for their mental health, especially an employee or colleagues, may feel daunting. You may wonder what's appropriate to say, whether you will come across as judgmental, or fear that you will 'get it wrong' or misinterpret what you are seeing.

The reality is that if someone is struggling with personal distress or mental health concerns, open non-judgmental communication and connecting is what they need most - as no amount of hiding will help them feel better or deal with their challenges effectively.

At some point, it’s much better to deal with a suspected problem directly and offer what may be much needed help or support.

Everyone needs help sometimes.

Below are a number of tips and strategies for recognizing when an employee or colleague might need a helping hand, and describes how to reach out in a way that is respectful and supportive.

Here are a few signs that things may not be going well for an employee or colleague:

  • arriving late for work more often than not (or not checking in regularly if working remotely)

  • frequently calling in sick

  • making up excuses for overreacting or becoming more angry than the circumstance warrants

  • not remembering what to do or not being able to concentrate

  • making excessive mistakes - or performing inconsistently or below normal levels

  • shifting unexpectedly from easy-going to grouchy; becoming difficult to be around, snapping at colleagues for no reason

  • avoiding responsibility, or refusing to take responsibility

  • avoiding socializing and withdrawing from normal conversation

  • showing up at work with signs fatigue or exhaustion

The iceberg analogy - behaviours seen, underlying causes unseen.

Like this iceberg, we may see the signs but never know (until we ask) what might be hiding under the surface.

Knowing when and how to help.

So, what do you do when you think someone might need a helping hand and you’re willing to offer them yours?

Before you do anything, first check in with yourself.

  • Is this the best time for you to have this conversation?

  • Are you feeling calm enough, well enough, strong enough?

  • If you are, great! If not, take a moment to get grounded yourself so you can focus on the other person in the moment.

Be prepared for a variety of responses. They might be open to talking to you, or may become emotional or even respond with anger or defensiveness, not ready to hear what you have to say. They might be offended and suggest you've made a mistake, or tell you to mind your own business.

Whatever their response, it’s important that you know and maintain your own boundaries, and respect the other person’s willingness or unwillingness to accept your support. You are simply trying to state what you’re observing, and offering support in response.

Follow these five steps to lend a helping hand:

  1. Ask if your employee/colleague is willing to chat with you. Find a quiet space that’s private for this conversation, or ensure there is privacy (on both ends) of a phone or video call.

  2. Focus the discussion on what you’ve noticed - changes in behaviour, appearance, performance, or attitude - and share your concern for their well-being.

  3. Leave room for a response and listen to them without judgment. This is crucial, and will go a long way to inviting openness and sharing. (If they aren't ready or willing to talk, remind them that you are there to talk and listen any time.)

  4. Ask them what they need and how you can help. Reassure them that you will respect confidentiality.

  5. Depending on the issues that surface, suggest they access appropriate professional support, and remind/inform them of any available services such as their EAP, extended health benefits, or other community health services. If they are reluctant to call or reach out on their own, suggest you make the initial call together.

Remember, you're not there to diagnose the problem.

It’s not on you to diagnose any issue, or provide counselling. You are offering a helping hand to someone you’re concerned about, suggesting suitable help, and fulfilling your mandate as a manager which is to:

  • ensure the psychological health & safety of your employee or colleague

  • confirm that their well-being is appropriately supported

  • verifying that they can continue to work safely

  • and taking appropriate action to address any issues related to poor performance and the well-being of the overall team.

While you should always emphasize that sharing personal information is voluntary, and that a person can maintain their privacy, as a manager you may need to establish a performance management plan if changes in workplace behaviour have become an issue of concern.

Giving and receiving help.

Remember, its' completely reasonable for you to ask for support before, during, and after this process as well. Consult with your manager, an appropriate leader, HR staff, or your EAP, for guidance and feedback on your approach.


Gregg Taylor is Regional Director of Family Services Employee Assistance Programs (fseap). Gregg is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and Chartered Professional in Human Resources (CPHR) and is a leader in the workplace mental health and wellness field. His specializations include Psychological Health & Safety in the Workplace, Wellness programs based on the principles of 'Workplace Psychological Wellness and Mental Fitness', and evidence-based positive psychology practices that contribute to healthy and effective workplaces.


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