“I’m fine”

Sarah Henchoz

Pretty much every conversation I have starts with a variation of: “Hi, how are you?”; response: “I’m fine”. We can’t all be fine all of the time, can we? Or maybe we can if what we are referring to is the F.I.N.E acronym…

With World Mental Health day approaching, my immediate thought was what can I blog about that is original given how many other people are likely to be posting about this important topic. But is being original really the important thing here? Isn’t it more important to share experiences and tips, to emphasise how important it is not just to communicate but to really demonstrate through actions and not just words that it is ok to not be ok, and to talk about our mental health openly and honestly in a supportive environment. Last week I picked up a sickness bug (no doubt lovingly brought home from school in the same way a prized painting would be), and I didn’t hesitate to tell anyone unfortunate enough to come into my office how bad I was feeling (yet how heroically I was struggling on). How long will it be before we all feel able to do the same when we feel mentally or emotionally below par?

So many companies are doing so many good things to raise mental health awareness in their organisations, developing initiatives to show their support of their employees’ mental health as well as encouraging people to speak up about their experiences. This is still a relatively new phenomenon but one that has been embraced so quickly and so extensively that it feels as if it has already become an established part of the diversity and welfare programmes employers have long since had in place. And that really is due to how many people have been brave enough to share their experiences, to make mental health a normal conversation rather than something that should be gossiped about in hushed whispers. I have the utmost respect for those who have put themselves out there on social media or otherwise, sharing often incredibly personal stories, and the fantastic work so many organisations such as City Mental Health and This Can Happen are doing to raise awareness and tackle the stigma still associated with mental health illness. Despite such progress, however, supporting an employee who is struggling with their mental health can be really difficult for their manager, for their HR business partner, but also for the rest of the team.

A particularly tricky area is when you are concerned about a colleague’s welfare but, when you ask, you get the stock, and relatively ambiguous response: “I’m fine”. Ending the conversation there may not be advisable for you, for the company or for the employee, so where do you go from there?

  1. Be human – if someone seems anything but fine, tell them what you are observing that is making you worried about them. Phrases such as: “You don’t seem yourself, I’m worried about you” or “You seem distracted/anxious/worried” may help open up the dialogue. Don’t let your own discomfort stop you from reaching out to someone who may really appreciate it. If they don’t want to discuss it they’ll soon tell you, but nothing ventured nothing gained and if you remain concerned, escalate.
  2. Ask questions – linked to the above, if you don’t ask someone what support they need, how will you know what could actually make a difference? How do they want to continue to engage on the topic of their mental health, how often would a conversation be useful and who do they feel comfortable talking to?
  3. Don’t make assumptions – just because someone is suffering from a period of poor mental health does not necessarily mean they cannot and should not be at work – the routine and camaraderie at work can often have a really positive impact on someone’s state of mind.
  4. Set expectations and don’t promise absolute confidentiality – while you must, of course, keep information about someone’s health confidential, there will be some people who have to know some detail in order to better support the employee – contextualise why you need to escalate something, who you will escalate it to and what you will share.
  5. Know and use the tools available to you – none of us would consider diagnosing a colleague’s physical health and the situation is no different when it comes to mental health. Your role is to offer support – helping a colleague get the help they need at an early stage may help prevent a more serious issue.

And maybe all of us can help each other by trying to find ways to describe how we are without resorting to “fine”.

Comments published on Employment Talk do not necessarily reflect the views of Allen & Overy.

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