The hardest manager conversation (hint: it’s not “letting someone go”)

There was a great article this week on HRDive about training HR and others to spot depression and suicide risk in employees.  The original article is here: How HR can step in to help prevent employee suicide.
It’s a brief, good read and I recommend checking it out.

As I was reading through the description of training ideas to help managers and HR recognize mental health and suicidality risks in their organizations, I started thinking of a presentation I did a couple months ago where I was advocating for EAP involvement in disability leaves. Part of the great discussion we had was around the difficulty and discomfort most of us have for addressing employees about medical and personal issues. Reading the HRDive article, I kept thinking how great it would be for more work forces to be aware of what depression and other mental illnesses look like, how they manifest in the workplace. But once you have that knowledge and know what to look for, how in the heck do you approach anemployee you’re  concerned about to have that conversation?

If you ask any manager about the hardest conversation they’ve ever had with an employee, I’d guess you’d hear a lot about having to let someone go, personal hygiene issues (ah yes, my favorite), etc. I’m sure there are way too many who’ve also had conversations about substance abuse and having to make “mandatory referrals” to the company’s EAP or face termination. I don’t think too many have ever thought to approach an employee about a mental health issue.

Mental illness is a whole new ballgame when it comes to learning how to have “challenging conversations.” Throw in confidentiality concerns, ADA, union-represented employees, stigma (and I’m sure there are other variables to consider)  and even the best leader/communicator would turn pale.

So how can we better support our managers, HR professionals, well-meaning colleagues to have these conversations? How can we help them know what to do when they see the signs? My first call would be to the EAP – this is their space, their specialty. My guess is that any number of great EAPs are starting to get these types of requests for training. EAPs are mental health professionals that have these conversations all the time, have trained years to be able to have them and know what to do. This is a fairly “clinical” space in my estimation so your regular “organizational development” professional training won’t do, I’m afraid.

I’d love to get this discussion going about how to bridge this important skill gap. I think it’s fantastic that we’re trying to talk more openly about mental illness in the workplace and build awareness. But how does the mental health community best partner with HR and organizational leaders to support them finding a way to intervene when they have all that great awareness we’re helping them have?


4 thoughts on “The hardest manager conversation (hint: it’s not “letting someone go”)

  1. I recently saw a manager address this topic head on with an employee whose performance had significantly changed. The manager was incredibly nervous and also caring and decided to take the risk to bring up her observations with the employee. The manager was prepared with suggested actions the employee could take (including EAP). The employee was defensive at first, but after having a night to think on it, realized they did need to address what was going on in their life. The employee ended up getting the help they needed and eventually moved on to their dream job. The employee later told the manager how grateful they were. Without the managers push, they would not have seeked the help they needed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Anne.
      Thanks so much for your comment. You bring up a fantastic point about preparedness – making sure you know what services are available within your organization so once the conversation is happening, the manager or co-worker has something to offer in terms of support and services. I’m guessing the manager in your situation also felt more prepared to have this talk with this employee because they knew what was available in the way of that help (e.g. EAP services). I find that many employees and managers don’t fully understand what’s available to them in these situations and even when they are aware of an EAP may not understand the scope of services, how confidentiality works (the source of HUGE misunderstandings that keeps many employees and managers from utilizing EAP services), etc.

      Thanks again for your comment and sharing your situation.


  2. Managing is just as much about listening as it is about providing your insight and knowledge. Listening enables you to hear what’s concerning your employees, what they need help with, and in what areas they need to grow. Talking constantly—even if providing your seasoned advice—robs them of the opportunity to be led most effectively.


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