Date posted: 11/09/2023 10 min read


How to start a conversation with your colleagues about stress and depression.

In Brief

  • R U OK? Day is on 14 September 2023 and it’s a way of encouraging Australians to check in on each other’s mental health. In New Zealand, Mental Health Awareness Week takes place from 18–24 September.
  • If you are concerned about a colleague, find a place that is private and informal. Mention that you have noticed some changes in them.
  • Listen without judgement, then suggest some next steps. Let them know that you are always available to talk.

By Jessica Mudditt

If you notice a change in a colleague’s behaviour that lasts more than a few days, you may feel concerned and wonder if you should ask them if they are OK. Beyond Blue lead clinical adviser and medical practitioner Grant Blashki encourages colleagues to check in with each other if they sense that something isn’t right.

“If you’re worried about someone, you should definitely try to talk to them,” he says. “The research tells us there’s quite a lot of lonely and isolated people who rely on their colleagues more than you imagine. Some of us are lucky enough to have very rich family lives or friendship groups, but not everybody does.”

Anxiety and depression are widespread across all age groups, with one in five Australians reporting that they have experienced a mental-health issue during the past 12 months. Suicide is the leading cause of death in Australia for those aged between 15 and 44. Although the stigma around mental health has lessened considerably in recent years, some employees are fearful of disclosing a mental-health issue to their employer.

Burnout manifests as a loss of pleasure from activities that usually make someone happy or provide purpose and satisfaction. Burnout usually stems from overwork, or from a perception of an unfair division of tasks.

“It is when someone has lost their normal enthusiasm for certain tasks and it seems like it takes an extreme effort to put in the effort that they used to,” says Professor Ian Hickie, co-director of the Brain and Mind Centre at the University of Sydney. “It may start to manifest itself with increasing frustration with the organisation and increasing irritability.”

When a person is suffering from burnout, the sense of dissatisfaction is generally confined to issues relating to work. By contrast, depression tends to be a wider, all-encompassing feeling.“You’ve not just had it with work,” says Hickie, “you’ve had it with other aspects of your personal life. You don’t really see the point of much of your life. Wherever you go, whether you’re at work, at home or at the football on the weekend, you take the black rain cloud with you.”

How to approach the conversation

This year, R U OK? Day is on 14 September. R U OK? is an Australian non-profit suicide prevention organisation that has been running an annual awareness day since 2009. Its website has free workplace resources, including a practical guide to help you approach someone at work in a supportive way who may be struggling.

The first step is to find a private and informal place to talk. Try to set aside an hour, so that you don’t have to rush, suggests the chief executive officer of R U OK? Katherine Newton. Perhaps you could approach them at the photocopier or in the tearoom and ask if they feel like going for a coffee.

“Begin the conversation by asking questions like ‘How are you going?’ to help them open up,” she says. “You can comment on the noticeable changes you’ve observed. For example, you could say, ‘I’ve noticed you’ve been less talkative lately. How are things going for you?’”

It’s important to bear in mind that showing an interest in your colleague and listening to what they say is the most important part of helping them.

“Sometimes people think that they have to rush in and be the social worker, the psychologist, the doctor or the psychiatrist,” says Hickie. “You don’t have to solve their problem. If someone is disclosing a mental-health issue to you, the most important thing is just being there and listening to them.”

“You don’t have to solve their problem. If someone is disclosing a mental-health issue to you, the most important thing is just being there and listening to them.”
Professor Ian Hickie, University of Sydney

Try to avoid responding with alarm, he adds. Keep the tone relaxed and friendly. Newton’s advice is to approach these kinds of conversations with empathy, sensitivity and respect for privacy.

Judgement-free listening

Active listening is the most powerful thing you can do, says Shaun Robinson, CEO of the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand. Do not underestimate how much it can help someone.

“Listen without judgement,” he says. “I live with bipolar disorder and I’ve been living with it for decades. In the early stages, I didn’t really know what was going on. I was struggling with depression. Some people would immediately try to fix things and would tell me what to do. It wasn’t helpful at all. What I needed was someone to show compassion for my pain.”

It is possible that your colleague may withdraw from the conversation. That doesn’t mean that you should not have approached them.

“Be prepared that the person may not be in a space where they’re wanting to talk about it,” says Robinson. “They may be surprised that you have shown concern. They may be feeling a lot of self-stigma and shame about any feelings they might be going through.”

He suggests letting them know they can speak to you anytime.

“If your colleague assures you that they are fine, you don’t have to push too hard,” says Blashki. “Just flag with them that you’re interested in their wellbeing. That’s a pretty good start.”

My colleague is struggling. What now?

If a colleague confides in you, Newton suggests the best approach may be to frame your response as a question.

“Ask them, ‘Where do you think we can go from here?’ or ‘What would be a good first step we can take?’,” says Newton.

Next steps could include talking to a family member, a trusted friend, a doctor or accessing an employee assistance program (EAP). You could offer to make the call to a professional service with them, or to wait at the GP clinic during their appointment.

Should you tell your manager or another trusted colleague?

Blashki concedes that deciding whether to tell someone else that a colleague is experiencing some mental-health challenges is complex – and it depends on what your colleague shares. Beyond Blue has a website called Heads Up to help you decide what to do.

As a general rule, you should not break a confidence by telling a manager if your colleague confides in you, says Hickie.

“What you could do is encourage your colleague to share it with key others, such as a manager. Or you might ask if they would like you to mention it to someone else,” he says.

“If someone’s been really low for more than two weeks – or is at risk – please contact a professional as soon as you can,” says Newton.

Check in with your colleague a couple of days after the initial conversation. If they haven’t taken any next steps, simply reiterate the different options available. Understand that sometimes it can take a long time for someone to be ready to see a professional, says Newton. And remind them that you’re always available if they need to talk.

R U OK?Image credit: Getty Images

Ways to look after your mental health

Managing your wellbeing should be an ongoing activity. It includes getting enough sleep, regular exercise, a nutritious diet and limiting screen time in the evening. Avoid excess alcohol and other drugs that can take a toll on health and wellbeing.

Maintaining friendships and family connections is also important to maintaining satisfaction with life, says Beyond Blue clinical adviser Dr Grant Blashki. Try not to let work become all-consuming.

“Don’t leave catching up with people you love to chance,” he says. “I find that guys are often not as good at making social arrangements – try making it a regular thing, like meeting up for a walk on Sundays.”

Blashki also recommends a psychological tool that reinforces positive behaviour called ‘activity planning’, which he often does with his patients.

“We write down one pleasurable activity and one achievement activity that needs to be done every day. Then we make a list of things that they enjoy, like a walk in the park or seeing a film. We also make a list of achievement activities, like fixing up their CV or cleaning their car or their drawers.”

Completing these activities provides enjoyment, contentment and a sense of achievement.

How to use your work employee assistance program

An employee assistance program (EAP) is a confidential service that many large- and medium-sized organisations provide to their staff.

“There are services such as therapy or counselling for staff about any topic – it doesn’t necessarily have to be work related,” says Shaun Robinson, CEO of the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand. “It’s based on the idea that employees who are dealing well with any emotional pressures are going to be better employees. It’s good for the organisation to provide that support and it is the right thing to do in terms of caring for your staff.”

It’s usually possible to self-refer to the EAP program, so there is no need to put in a request through your manager. You can access details from your human resources department, who will provide you with a user code.

The EAP provider company is there to support staff and enhance employee satisfaction, and does not report back to management on which staff have used which services.

“They tend to report back data on a very high level, such as the numbers of people who have accessed the EAP services over the last six months. There is no data that would identify an individual,” says Robinson.

HBR Guide to Better Mental Health at Work

The audiobook 'HBR Guide to Better Mental Health at Work' offers advice on how to have a conversation about stress and depression in the workplace, and ways to create a more empathetic work culture.

Read more

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