​R U OK? Approaching employees who may be mentally struggling


​R U OK? Approaching employees who may be mentally struggling

Many managers are scared to approach employees who appear to be under stress and struggling mentally, but they need to find a way to do it.


Get unlimited access to all of our content.

Many managers are scared to approach employees who appear to be under stress and struggling mentally, but they need to find a way to do it. Not only will it help the employee to cope better and hopefully restore or improve job performance, it may avert a crisis that could arise if the situation is ignored.

RUOK? is an organisation that promotes strong mental health and provides assistance to managers and employees. One of its promotion initiatives is the annual RUOK? Day, which is today.

RUOK? has published a workplace guide for approaching struggling employees, and this article summarises its main points.

Four main steps

The guide focuses on four steps:
  1. Identify when an employee may need help
  2. Prepare to approach the employee
  3. Have a conversation
  4. Handle emotions that may arise during the conversation

When does an employee need help?

This is likely if at least two of the following changes have become evident over the past few weeks:
  1. Changes in physical appearance – looks tired or run-down, lacks energy, health problems such as headaches or migraines, eating more or less than usual, increased alcohol consumption, signs of nervousness
  2. Mood changes – irritable (or more so than usual), anxious, worried, emotional overreactions, appears overwhelmed by normally routine work tasks
  3. Behaviour changes – withdrawn, easily distracted, takes on extra work to avoid social interaction, job performance declines, finds it hard to “switch off”
  4. Changes in thought patterns and communication – frequent negative interpretations, melodramatic responses (eg “they are bullying me”), confused or irrational comments

Prepare to approach the employee

  • Be ready – are you in a good headspace, are you willing to genuinely listen, do you have the necessary amount of time?
  • Be prepared – again, be ready to actively listen, accept that you may not have all the answers, appreciate that the employee may become emotional, upset or embarrassed
  • Choose the right moment – use a private and informal location, allow enough time for a proper conversation, and if the employee rejects your first approach ask him/her to choose a better time

Have a conversation

  • Start with a question such as: how are you going; what’s been happening; or, I’ve noticed you don’t seem quite yourself lately, how are you travelling? Mention specific things, eg you look tired, you seem less chatty than usual.
  • Listen without judging. Take responses seriously, don’t interrupt or rush the employee, use silence or prompts to encourage further explanation, stay calm and don’t take angry responses personally, make it clear you are asking because you are concerned.
  • Encourage action. Ask questions such as: where should we go from here, what is a first step we can take, what do you need me to do, how can I help? Explore options such as counselling, talking to friends, medical assistance.
  • Contact the employee again a few days later and ask how things are going. Sometimes there will be no action because he/she just wanted someone to listen at the time, but if the situation still appears unresolved, again suggest looking at some form of support or assistance. Be patient and non-judgmental, as it takes some people a long time to feel ready to do something about it.

Handling an employee’s reactions

Emotional reactions

  • Remember that you usually don’t (initially) know the reason for an emotional response, so don’t judge or assume.
  • Allow the employee to let off steam and finish, but listen actively the whole way. Simply being a good listener can be a great help to a distressed person.
  • Deal with emotions first. Once they are addressed, the issues can be approached rationally.
  • Stay calm yourself and don’t take things personally.
  • Validate the employee’s response but keep the focus on the main issue.


  • Say something like: I can see this has upset you. Please start at the beginning and tell me what I need to know.
  • Encourage and allow him/her to state all the factors causing anger. Ask what else is causing concern?
  • Again, listen actively and make it obvious that you are interested.
  • If the employee believes he/she has been mistreated, you are unlikely to convince him/her otherwise at this stage. Better to listen and then offer avenues for specific complaints to be heard.


  • Speak in short, concise sentences.
  • Display concern and care for the employee.
  • Stay calm. Speak at an even pace and in a lower tone of voice.


  • This emotion is hard on both parties. You may empathise, but feel helpless because you cannot remove the employee’s sadness or pain.
  • Use empathetic words such as: I can see this must be difficult for you.
  • Use silences as permission to provide you with more information.
  • If the employee begins to cry, sit and wait with lowered eyes until he/she finishes. You could say: I’ll sit here with you and when you’re ready we can talk further.

Further information

How to Ask Staff RUOK?
A Practical Guide to the Workplace, published by RUOK?

This article first appeared on our sister site HR Advance.
Post details