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?


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This blog is about all the tags you see noted and facilitating conversations and sharing resources among like-minded, interested people: HR professionals, EAP partners, consultants, practitioners, academicians, occupational health and leave management professionals, etc etc. This blog space is for you and I hope you’ll read and participate when you can.

Thank you for reading and your interest in this space.