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Top tips on how to start the conversation about mental health

Article by Jemima Jefferson

how to talk about mental health image

Mental ill health in the workplace is a growing issue with one in six working age adults experiencing depression, anxiety or stress-related issues at any one time.[1] In the lead up to World Mental Health Day on 10th October, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England is calling on employers to find out how they can support the mental wellbeing of their staff.

10 million people experience a mental health issue each year in the UK and work-related mental ill health costs UK employers £26 billion annually through lost working days, staff turnover and lower productivity.[2] Even though we are now talking more about mental health, the stigma still remains, particularly in the workplace.

In 2012, I went through a very difficult time. I left my job at Credit Suisse, and around the same time I developed mouth cancer and needed surgery. My mother then passed away, and my partner lost both her parents that same year. I found myself caring for a bereaved partner while dealing with my own grief and health issues. It was an incredibly tough time, I lost so much weight because of the stress and the inability to eat and it completely took over my life. I went straight back to work but in 2014 I found that I just couldn’t sustain it. The stress of those experiences had deeply affected me.

I was invited to a talk about Mental Health First Aid by a friend and it was like a lightbulb moment. Learning about Mental Health First Aid just made me feel like I want to do this, I want to change people’s lives. I signed up two weeks later for instructor training and that was that.

Mental Health First Aid is the mental health equivalent of a physical first aid course. It teaches people the skills and confidence to recognise the signs and symptoms of common mental health issues and effectively guide a person towards the right support.

Help tackle the stigma around mental health

To help tackle the stigma around mental health, MHFA England is calling on everyone to ‘Take 10 Together’ and have a 10 minute conversation with a friend, family member, or colleague.

It might seem a little daunting to start a conversation about mental health but it’s important to remember you don’t have to be an expert. Here are some practical tips for how you can start the conversation.

Choose a setting

  • Make a cup of tea, coffee or grab a cup of water. Whichever you choose it’s a great way to ask someone a quick ‘how are you’ and ask for a private meeting
  • Give yourself plenty of time so you don’t appear to be in a hurry. 10 minutes may be enough but if you need longer then go ahead
  • You don’t want to be disturbed so turn your phone off or onto silent
  • Meeting outside the workplace in a neutral space such as a café might feel less intimidating

How to ask the questions

  • Keep the chat positive and supportive, exploring the issues and how you may be able to help
  • Keep your body language open and non-confrontational
  • Be empathetic and take them seriously
  • Do not offer glib advice such as “pull yourself together” or “cheer up”
  • Take into account cultural differences in communication styles such as how much eye contact is appropriate


Useful questions to ask:

  • “How are you feeling at the moment?”
  • “How long have you felt like this – is it an ongoing issue?”
  • “Who do you feel you can go to for support?”
  • “Are there any work related factors which are contributing to how you are feeling?”
  • “Is there anything we can do to help?”


How to listen

  • Give the person your full focus and listen without interrupting
  • Listen to their words, tone of voice and body language – all will give clues to how they are feeling


Once you’ve started the conversation, make sure you keep it going – follow up with the person and ask them how they are doing. Reassure them that your door is always open, and really mean it. It’s particularly essential to keep in touch with an employee who is off sick.


Give reassurance that there are lots of sources of support and some of these might be available via the HR or Occupational Health department, Employee Assisted Programmes or on-site counselling. If you work in a company with limited support services it’s also appropriate to encourage the person to visit their GP for guidance around accessing the NHS funded programme ‘Improving Access to Psychological Therapies’.

© Giles Christopher - Media Wisdom Photography Ltd

© Giles Christopher – Media Wisdom Photography Ltd

About Jemima

Jemima Jefferson, aged over fifty, spent over 20 years building a high-flying career in some of the world’s biggest banks and financial firms. She has worked for prestigious firms including Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse and EY – but in 2014, Jemima made the decision to leave this career behind to become a Mental Health First Aid instructor, which she now does alongside her diversity consultancy. With World Mental Health Day coming up on 10th October, Jemima shares her advice on how to start a conversation about mental health in the workplace.


For more guidance around how to approach and respond to a colleague who is experiencing a mental health issue download the free Line Managers Resource at mhfaengland.org/workplace/line-managers-resource


To find out how employers can support the wellbeing of their staff and demonstrate their commitment to World Mental Health Day, visit mhfaengland.org and download the free MHFA England Take 10 Together toolkit.



[1]ONS (2009)

[2] https://www.centreformentalhealth.org.uk/mental-health-at-work


Ceri Wheeldon

Ceri is Founder and Editor of Fabafterfifty.co.uk She is a frequent speaker at events and in the media on topics related to women over 50 , including style and living agelessly. With 20+ years experience as a headhunter Ceri also now helps support those looking to extend their working lives.

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