How to talk to a colleague about their mental health

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Looking out for the mental health of colleagues is crucial, says Amy Sayer in the TES. But how do you start those conversations?

Choose the right location

Start by choosing a private location. Nowadays, many offices (particularly in schools) have a glass panel due to safeguarding requirements, but the ability to have a pull-down blind is needed for private meetings about mental health, so you will not be disturbed.

This gives your colleague the space to open up and be listened to, uninterrupted.

Time it right

Consider the timing of the meeting carefully. If the person is likely to be distressed after the conversation, it may be a good idea to have it at the end of the day so that they can go home and engage in self-care or get further support. Make sure that you do not have another meeting immediately afterwards, so that if you need to contact anyone for support or make notes, you have the space to do this.

Give them all of your attention

Make sure that your phone is off the hook and your mobile is on silent so that you are not distracted.

Summarise the meeting

After the meeting, it is a good idea to summarise the outcome of it in an email to reassure your colleague that you have listened and have organised the support discussed during the meeting.

Don’t judge

Actively listen to them in a non-judgemental way and have concrete examples to use as a basis for any conversations. For example, their absences or the fact they have missed deadlines are indicators of poor mental health.

It may be the case that your colleague becomes defensive and is not ready to have the conversation at this point, but letting them know that you are there to support them when they are ready is really important. Discussing the possibilities of support that are available to them will give them a chance to think about what they might need. The chances are that they will email you for a meeting at a later date when they have considered the sort of support that may help them.

Ask questions in a genuine and non-accusatory manner, and give them time to talk

A good opening question could be something along the lines of, “I’ve noticed that you’ve been struggling to keep up with deadlines recently. How are you?

What not to do

It’s useful, too, to point out what you definitely should not do:

  • Have a conversation in the staffroom where others are present.
  • Try to have the conversation first thing in the morning as they come through the door and are trying to wake up.
  • Try to squeeze the conversation into a 10-minute window between other meetings.
  • Take responsibilities away from a staff member without consulting them.
  • Take classes away from a staff member without consulting them.
  • Say things like “everyone feels sad sometimes”, “everyone gets stressed”, “other jobs have longer hours and more stress” or “you’ll get used to the pressure eventually” (yes, these have all been said to colleagues).
  • Talk about the mental health of colleagues in a flippant or dismissive way.
  • Treat mental health less seriously than physical health (the two are often linked).
  • Tell them to “think positively”.
  • Tell them to take up yoga or mindfulness.

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