The transition towards more open conversations about mental health is for the most part a good thing. But these conversations come with risks. Employers need to consider the potential harm of poor listening skills and bad advice before encouraging mental health chats at work.
Before we talk, we must learn to listen – and not in the way you think.
The current pandemic has escalated the mental health crisis to unprecedented levels and blurred the boundaries between our work and personal lives. With public healthcare unable to cope with the scale of the problem, it’s only fair that employers take responsibility for providing that much needed support to their people.
However, despite employers’ best intentions to care for their people, most employee wellbeing and mental health initiatives remain at the superficial, conversational level.
It is now trendy to talk about mental health. Influencers with lived experience are applauded for sharing their stories publicly. Leaders and CEOs are encouraged to open up and be vulnerable. People are praising one another for sharing their struggles, and reporting their blue days on a shiny new app for all colleagues to see.
But is this always the right thing to do?
Without the right support infrastructure, talking about employee mental health problems can be risky.
Why? Because we’re often not considering how those sensitive stories and emotional words land on the listener. We do not consider that by offloading emotional baggage we can trigger others. And, most importantly, we often don’t take into consideration that listeners might need help and support themselves.
Having awareness about workplace mental health is crucial, but not enough. Engaging in painful conversations, and bringing the mud to the surface, is an important part of healing. But doing it without a strong support infrastructure is not only unhelpful but also unethical.
As line managers and leaders, we should be responsible enough to create a support ecosystem where it is safe to talk and where we have clear processes in place for helping others.
Before encouraging others to share their most vulnerable experiences, we must first teach those around us how to listen.
We need to teach our people how to hold a safe space for others, so they can feel truly heard. Let’s teach them what to say, and what not to say in response to someone else’s struggles.
For those of us lucky enough to have avoided mental health troubles, it can be difficult to understand what others need in these situations. Many people still feel uncomfortable when a friend or colleague opens up, pouring their heart out.
With the best intentions, they try to advise – to fix the problem. Or worse, they direct attention to the good things in an attempt to make the other person feel better.
Not acknowledging someone’s experiences deprives them of the right to feel how they do.
To recover, a person must fully engage with all the difficult emotions they’re going through. If we don’t allow them that space to feel and validate their unique experience, we have a person who not only feels bad, but also feels bad about feeling bad.
The response we get shapes how willing we are to ask for help, and how strong our belief in our ability to improve is. This is why listening skills are crucial to building resilience and confidence while reducing stigma.
Traditional active listening approaches are not always best for dealing with mental health at work. So, we have designed the CLAMP model, which we use to train leaders and mental health ambassadors at the Elite Mind Academy.
The meaning of CLAMP is to hold something together; to strengthen by joining separate pieces. The role of the listener is to help a person gather their pieces, to be held, and to become stronger as a result of the interaction.
This is how the CLAMP model works:
Before doing anything else, provide for the individual’s immediate needs. Are they scared? Anxious? Cold? Hungry? Angry? In pain? Build trust and a sense of safety and calm.
Establish clear boundaries for the conversation and set expectations.
Assure them it is ok to share as little or as much as they like
Give them power over the conversation
Help them clarify their own situation, emotions, and thoughts
Do not judge their feelings or actions
We can’t always understand what another person is going through, so your goal is simply to make them feel heard.
You can do that by providing feedback on their body language – observe shifts in their tonality, posture, breathing and tension, and reflect on your observations.
How are they coping? What support is available? What have they tried before? What worked? What didn’t? What prevents them from receiving or asking for support?
Empower the individual to take one small step. This step must come from them, not you. Do not give advice or tell them what to do.
Safety is the number one priority. What preventative measures can you help them to take? Who do you need to refer them to? What resources can you share? Ask what you can do to further support them.
However, before you engage in the listening exercise, think about your own needs too. Are you in a position to be there for someone with a mental health condition, fully? If not, arrange a time when you can do so.
The greatest gift you can give someone is the quality of your attention. This is especially true when it comes to employee health and wellbeing.
The connection you can build with others is only as good as the connection with yourself. Take time to ground yourself. Speak from a place of giving, but remember you cannot pour from an empty glass. When you are fully connected and present with your own inner strength, people open up to you without knowing why.