Psychologist’s message to employers: talking about mental health should not be taboo

[Marit Raag | 30.03.2022 :]

While supporting physical health has become standard in almost every Estonian workplace, as a society, we are only just beginning to understand that people’s mental health is also directly linked to productivity and happiness at work. “Employers should do everything in their power to make sure that their employees are not afraid to express their needs and ask for assistance,” says Psychologist Helena Väljaste.

Estonians are tough cookies for whom taking sick leave is often the last resort. It is understandable that people are afraid of their income decreasing, but there are also people who do not want to let their colleagues or clients down or are worried about what their employer will think if they go on sick leave because of mental health issues. Last year, Seesam carried out a study, which revealed that as much as 64% of Estonians suffered from work-related stress during the year and almost one in five persons continued working while ill because they feel that mental health problems are not considered a real illness.

“A large part of Estonian managers are only just coming to the realisation that problems in personal life inevitably carry over to work situations and vice versa – and people might not always be able to cope with it all on their own,” explains Psychologist Helena Väljaste, who gives advice on how to support a colleague under stress.

Assess the emergency of the situation
Väljaste’s first piece of advice is to assess the emergency of the situation. Here’s a checklist that can help you:

●    Could the person hurt themselves?
●    Is the person under extreme levels of stress?
●    Do other people find the person’s conduct very disruptive?
●    Is this a crisis situation?

If the answer to any of the above questions is “yes”, the situation is dire and requires prompt intervention. A crisis calls for crisis measures, e.g. call 112 or consult the general practitioners’ helpline on 1220.

How to talk about problems without judgment
According to the therapist, talking about problems is important both as a solution and as a preventive measure. The most important thing is to signal to your team members that you are interested in their wellbeing and to be emotionally available to them. One of the most effective ways to do this is by having regular conversations. To keep these meetings from turning into a formality or an unpleasant intrusion, here are some tips on how to direct the conversation without judgment:

●    Listen and be supportive, refrain from judgement
●    Give assurance, offer support and information
●    Encourage the use of appropriate professional help
●    Encourage the use of self-help and other supportive strategies

Väljaste presents a simple example of how to get someone to open up. “You can pick a suitable time and place and address the person in a caring manner and say “Lately I’ve noticed that you don’t seem to be feeling like yourself. Tell me, how are things going?””

Ask if the person even wants your advice
She adds that people are always eager to propose solutions to those in need, but this is sometimes done before taking the time to hear what the person has to say. “We have two ears and one mouth and for good reason. People who are in a tough spot want to be listened to in a non-judgmental way before anyone proposes solutions or ways to get help. You can give good advice only if you really have a good understanding of the person,” says Väljaste. 

Therefore, her advice is rather to use a question-based approach to find out what the person thinks might help them and what support they need. Before giving advice, however, you should start by asking for permission to see if the other person is ready to hear you out. You can use phrases like “I have some ideas. Do you mind if I share them with you?” And once you have passed on your idea or recommendation, it is also a good idea to ask if and how it might suit the person. If needed, offer emotional support and practical help in matters that the person might not be able to deal with at the given time.

Make professional help available
According to Seesam’s product manager Marit Raag who carried out the study, there are more and more employers every year who are also concerned about the mental health of their employees. “Some time ago, employers would enter into health insurance contracts for their employees mainly to cover physical health costs, such as dental care, rehabilitation and appointment fees to see specialists, but today every insurance package also includes psychologist services. It’s good to see that so many companies have decided to create every opportunity to allow employees to take care of their health, not only in terms of coping with consequences but also by establishing means for preventive intervention,” says Raag.

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