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Managers "afraid" of talking about mental health

The Business Disability Forum (BDF) has launched a new guide to help managers have sensitive conversations about mental health at work

Managers are "afraid" of talking about mental health with their team members, according to Bela Gor, head of campaigns and legal at BDF.

Speaking to HR magazine, Gor said that, despite increased awareness around mental health, many managers still find it difficult to have quality conversations on the topic.

"There are managers who, often regardless of their seniority, are still afraid to start talking about mental health. Often they'll tell us that an employee will just say that they're 'fine' when they ask about how they're doing, and it will feel very difficult to know where to take the conversation from there," she said.

One of the main challenges is that managers often lack the people skills needed to have such conversations, Gor added: "While a lot of managers are 'people people' others are doing their jobs because they have the right technical skills but are not necessarily great people managers. If there isn't trust in the workplace or in a line manager, having those conversations can feel even harder."

Recent research from Business in the Community found that 62% of managers said they have had to put the company ahead of employee wellbeing and just 13% of managers have attended specific training on mental health.

Gor said she's also seen a "mixed picture" of the wider workforce's desire to have open conversations about mental health: "While there seems to be a lot more willingness among younger employees to talk about mental health, many are still reluctant to have a conversation about it with their employers."

To mark World Mental Health Day today (10 October) the BDF has launched a guide to help HR and managers identify the signs of mental ill-health and have sensitive conversations with team members.

The guide includes resources on creating a culture of trust and openness, spotting the signs of someone struggling, and maintaining boundaries.

Gor said it provides a comprehensive checklist for managers: "We get a lot of people asking us about training managers in mental health, but it's not always possible to roll it out to everyone. A lot of employees might not have any contact in person with their manager. We hope that the guide can offer reassurance and a specific ordered way of helping people."

Diane Lightfoot, CEO of the BDF, added: “Being aware of the signs of mental illness, and having the confidence and knowledge to discuss concerns, can help ensure colleagues receive support in good time and can prevent mental health problems from escalating."