Mental Health In the Workplace: Starting the Conversation at Work

starting the conversation at work

It has been some time since R U OK? Day and World Mental Health Day, and while days like these are necessary for raising awareness, it’s important that we keep the conversation going all year round.  So the question is, what are you doing to continue to break down those barriers?

Every year, 20% of Australian’s are affected by mental illness. Since the 2018 Loneliness Report came out, we’ve discovered that 1 in 4 Australians are lonely, a phenomenon so dire it’s been put on the national public health agenda. In the UK a Minister has been appointed to address the issue and we might appoint one too.

The upside is, you can do something about it.

‘A conversation could change a life,’ says the ‘R U OK’ website, a suicide prevention charity created by Australian Gary Larkin. You don’t have to be a psychologist to help someone with mental health concerns. You just need to be yourself.

Check in with your team… and if your colleague isn’t acting like they usually do and seems different, try talking to them. Here are some pointers on how you can get started.


1. Assess the situation

Is the person sitting across from you at work coming in later than usual and always looking harassed? Is the colleague you normally have lunch with suddenly avoiding all social activities? Or maybe you’re a manager and a staff member breaks into an outburst whenever you give her feedback on something. Maybe she even gets aggressive and uses harsh words.

Before you think about performance management or passing any judgement, stop. Consider that the person may be struggling with life, with things beyond his or her control that you don’t see in the office. Take a breath and assess the situation.


2. Reach out

Starting a conversation could be as simple as saying, “Are you okay?” The important thing is to be thoughtful and genuine about it.

  • Mention specific things you’ve noticed, for example, if they’ve been stressed lately or look tired you might say: “I noticed you’ve been quiet lately. Are you okay?”
  • Or simply be casual and ask them, ‘Hey, what’s been happening?’


3. Listen, without expectation

Listen. Remember, you don’t have to have the answers. The idea of starting a conversation is to get the person to start talking about how she or he feels.

  • Be relaxed and concerned when asking questions. You don’t have to have answers or do much talking yourself. Just be open and available so they can talk to you. Ask leading questions such as, ‘How do you feel about that?’ or ‘ How long have you felt that way?’
  • To show you’re listening, repeat what they’ve told you but in your own words. ‘So you’re tired and juggling so many things…’
  • Acknowledge their challenges, empathise with them. ‘Sounds like a really tough time’ or ‘It must be hard.’
    Don’t play judge. This is their story.
  • If they need time to think and explain, just wait quietly. Don’t interrupt or rush them.


4. Respond, but do not try and fix

Respond encouragingly but avoid the impulse to fix the situation. Responding to something without trying to offer advice is hard work. But that’s what you need to do here.

  • Encourage discussion. Ask about how they have managed the situation in the past.
  • Offer to help: ‘How can I help?’
  • Show support. And remember that just by you being there talking to them, you are showing support.


5. Follow up

Check in with them again in a week or two.

  • Some people may not be ready for help and that’s okay. Give them space and be available  if they want to talk at a later time.
  • Demonstrate that you value and respect their privacy.
  • Discuss other support options available to them.
  • If there is any mention of suicidal thoughts, escalate this to a manager or HR in a respectful way, or contact


We take our hats off to people and organisations that are keeping the conversation alive. Providing an open and supportive working environment helps promotes a culture where people feel confident enough to check in with their peers, and safe enough to open up.

If you would like to further your knowledge and skills, or gain an understanding of the latest research in the mental health field then perhaps Mental Health First Aid is for you. Check out our up and coming courses:


Mental Health First Aid – 2 Day Course 
Melbourne: 10th & 11th March, 2020
Sydney: 19th & 20th March, 2020


We are also now holding Mental Health First Aid Refresher Courses! These courses are perfect for anyone that is looking to update and build upon the skills learned in the initial 2 day Mental Health First Aid Course, while extending your their accreditation for a further 3 years!
Mental Health First Aid – 4 Hour Refresher Course 
Sydney: 5th March, 2020
Melbourne: 28th April, 2020