Mental Health Suicide Prevention and Awareness

ACT: How to Help A Colleague in Need

The current pandemic’s wide-ranging impact has affected all aspects of our lives, from personal to professional. We are experiencing change that is centred around loss - loss of physical connectedness, loss of routine, loss of future plans, and loss of freedom. As none of these losses involves death directly, grief might not be immediately attributed to them. However, any form of loss can cause grief.

In other words, we are currently living in a chronic state of mild grief as we cope with these unprecedented changes.

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Science shows that our social context plays a huge role in how we cope with grief and loss. While we experience grief differently, social support is one of the most effective stress-buffering methods during temporary periods of grief. Many of our colleagues may be experiencing difficulty with their mental health at a time like this. It could be feelings of isolation, frustration, worthlessness, insecurity, or fear of being judged if they were to open up.

Being there for a colleague coping with mental health issues isn’t complicated. Supporting each other in having these conversations starts with three simple steps - ACT:

  1. Ask them if they’re okay;

  2. Console them;

  3. Take action if help is needed.

1. Ask them if they’re okay

First, before we can look out for others, we first need to look out for ourselves. Here is a simple checklist to assess our own readiness and preparedness to have a meaningful conversation with our colleagues. 

Am I ready?

  • Am I in a good headspace? 

  • Am I willing to genuinely listen? 

  • Can I give as much time as needed? 

Am I prepared?

  • Do I understand that if I ask if someone is okay, the answer could be: “No, I’m not”?

  • Do I understand that you cannot ‘fix’ someone’s problems?

  • Do I accept that they might not be ready to talk? Or that they might not want to talk to me?  

Have I picked the right moment?

  • Have I chosen somewhere relatively private and comfortable? 

  • Have I figured out a time that will be good for them to chat? 

  • Have I made sure I have enough time to chat properly?

Secondly, an essential component in having a meaningful conversation is trust. It’s not just what we say, but also how we say it - body language matters. 

  • Find a quiet place.

  • Be relaxed, friendly, and concerned in your approach. 

  • Use positive body language (e.g. head tilted to one side to demonstrate listening, palms open and pointing upward to show openness and honesty, leaning in slightly to show that you trust them and are interested in what they are saying).

  • Help them open up by asking questions like "How are you doing?" or "What’s been happening?"  

  • Mention specific things that have made you concerned for them, like "You seem less chatty than usual. How are you doing?"

  • Remember that each conversation is different because each individual and their situations are different.

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2. Console them

Listening is one of the most important tools when speaking to a colleague who may be experiencing a mental health crisis. Most people want to be heard before being offered helpful options and resources. Our experiences are unlikely to be the same, therefore it is important to apply Reflective Listening to truly understand what they are saying and how they are feeling, especially as they describe their experience, instead of providing solutions that have worked for us.

There are two key skills involved in Reflective Listening:

Attending skills

Attending means giving your physical and psychological attention to another person in a communicative situation. Effective attending non-verbally conveys that you are interested and that you are paying careful attention to the speaker.

  • Adopt a posture that faces the person speaking to you

  • Establish good eye contact

  • Avoid distractions

  • Maintaining an interested silence

  • Arrange to have an appropriate environment for this conversation

Reflecting skills

Reflecting is being able to consider and express the essence of the content and emotions that are being expressed, as well as summarizing larger segments of what is said. 

  • Express brief one to three-word statements or non-verbal gestures (acknowledgement responses)

  • Try to understand what you have been told in your own words (reflecting content/ feelings/ meanings)

  • Condense all of what you have been told into two to three sentences (summarising)

Here are some examples of statements and questions employed with active listening:

  1. Building trust and establishing rapport:
    “Tell me what I can do to help.”
    “I was really impressed to read on your website how you donate 5% of each sale to charity.

  2. Demonstrating concern:
    “I'm eager to help; I know you're going through some tough challenges.”
    “I know how hard a corporate restructuring can be. How is staff morale at this point?” 

  3. Paraphrasing:
    “So, you're saying that the uncertainty about who will be your new supervisor is creating stress for you.”
    “So, you think that we need to build up our social media marketing efforts.” 

  4. Brief verbal affirmation:
    “I understand that you'd like more frequent feedback about your performance.”
    “Thank you. I appreciate your time in speaking to me.”

  5. Asking open-ended questions:
    “I can see that John's criticism was very upsetting to you. Which aspect of his critique was most disturbing?”
    “It’s clear that the current situation is intolerable for you. What changes would you like to see?”

  6. Asking specific questions:
    “How long do you expect your hiring process to last?”
    “What is your average rate of staff turnover?”

  7. Waiting to disclose your opinion:
    “Tell me more about your proposal to reorganize the department.”
    “Can you please provide some history for me regarding your relationship with your former business partner?” 

  8. Disclosing similar situations:
    “I was also conflicted about returning to work after the birth of my son.”
    “I had the responsibility of terminating some of my personnel, due to downsizing, over the last two years. Even if it’s necessary, it never gets easier.”

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Affirmations

Affirmations are statements and gestures that recognize your colleague’s strengths and behaviours that lead in the direction of positive change, no matter how big or small. Acknowledging and supporting their struggles and efforts will help build confidence in one’s ability to change. To be effective, affirmations must be genuine and congruent. 

Examples of affirming responses:

  • It’s great that you are here today. 

  • You are obviously a resourceful person to have coped with those difficulties

  • It’s not always easy… you handled yourself really well in that situation.

  • That’s a good idea.

  • It’s hard to talk about I really appreciate your keeping on with this.

  • If I were in your shoes, I don’t know if I could have managed nearly so well.

  • I’ve enjoyed talking with you today.

  • It seems like you are really good at…

3. Take action if help is needed

The most effective type of action or intervention often requires careful consideration of the situation and individual readiness. You can encourage your colleagues to adopt self-help techniques to improve their mental well-being. In the event that your colleague shows resistance to help, it is important to not confuse resistance with losing hope. If they are ready to seek help, encourage them to speak to a mental health professional.

Self-Help

Ask: “What have you done in the past to manage similar situations?”

Ask: “How would you like me to support you?"

Ask: “What’s something you can do for yourself right now? Something that’s enjoyable or relaxing?”

Recommend: 

  • Mindfulness 

    • Mindfulness is a great way to track and monitor your general wellbeing and stress levels.

    • Body scan worksheet

  • Deep breathing

  • Controlled deep breathing exercises promote a healthy mind and body helping to lower blood pressure, promote feelings of calm and relaxation, and relieve stress.

  • Take a deep breath in. Now let it out. You may notice a difference in how you feel already. Your breath is a powerful tool to ease stress and make you feel less anxious.

  • 5 senses

    • Take note of this

      • What are 5 things I can see around me now?

      • What are 4 things I can touch and feel around me now?

      • What are 3 things I can hear around me now?

      • What are 2 things I can smell around me now?

      • What is one thing I can taste in my mouth now? 

    • Recognizing and collecting this basic environmental data can really help to tune out anxious thoughts and feelings. It can help them reconnect to their present situation and press ‘pause’ the negative thoughts of sadness of past experiences or worries of future difficulties.

  • Emotion awareness 

    Be aware of your own emotions and how they can affect those around you. Learn to pick up on others' emotions and body language and use that information to enhance your communications skills.

  • Mental reframing

    Reframing is a way of changing the way you look at something and, thus, changing your experience of it. It can turn a stressful event into either major trauma or a challenge to be bravely overcome.

Thinking mistakes

  • All or Nothing

    • To learn to become more mentally resilient and take on new habits, it’s mindsets or mind frames that shape how we ultimately feel, think and act. 

    • This mindset holds us back from achieving progress in the goals we want in life. We have to remember small setbacks are normal, and little steps are better than none.

    • To learn more about an ‘All or Nothing’ mindset click here

  • Catastrophizing

    • This means over-exaggerating the situation we find ourselves to the point we feel like it is impossible to solve.

    • By panicking and immediately thinking you can’t do something without even trying to find a realistic solution, you could be letting your fear take an opportunity away.

    • Don’t let this mind frame hold you back from overcoming obstacles you face while pursuing your goals.

    • To learn more about a ‘Catastrophizing’ mindset click here

  • Mind Reading

    • Oftentimes we find ourselves assuming and believing how we think others perceive us without actually knowing if it’s true.

    • Don’t assume how others feel about you and overthink it, sometimes it’s good to just be direct with people and approach them about their thoughts or for any questions, tips or advice. You’ll find they might not be thinking as negatively as you had assumed.

    • To learn more about a ‘Mind Reading’ mindset click here

  • Dealing with plateaus

    • Try not to feel too discouraged when you hit plateaus while trying to achieve life goals. It’s a completely normal thing that happens as you make progress.

    • The key is to not let your discouragement get the better of you and don’t give up on improving to reach your goal. Maybe this just means that you need to change, adapt and adjust what you’re doing in order to find that breakthrough.

    • To learn more about ‘Dealing with Plateaus’ click here

Escalate to a professional

If your colleague has been experiencing these symptoms for more than two weeks, encourage them to see a health professional because it may become a medical condition. Pay attention for the following signs:

  • Becoming socially withdrawn

  • A decrease in performance (e.g. missing deadlines at work)

  • Problems concentrating

  • Increased sensitivity to sights, sounds, smells or touch

  • Dramatic mood swings

  • Sudden changes in sleep patterns or appetite

  • Fear or distrust of others

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There are many different types of therapy that have their own benefits. For example:

  • Face-to-face 

  • Call 

  • Chat 

Face-to-face therapy typically means meeting with a psychologist or counsellor, usually at the therapist's office to speak face to face. The benefit of this is that there can be a real-time conversation, where they can pick up on body language and tone of voice, which can give them insights into what is being experienced.

On the other hand, with online therapy, individuals can start a session or communicate with their therapist in a more convenient and familiar setting. People might feel more comfortable and at ease and open up more.

The difference between clinical psychologist and counsellors is:

  • A clinical psychologist is a mental health professional with a minimum of a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology. They are able to diagnose and treat mental disorders and conduct relevant psychological assessment. They are also trained in the study of the brain in relation to human behaviour and the study of psychiatric medication.

  • A counsellor is a mental health practitioner who has at least undergone a Bachelor’s level education in Counselling. They do not provide a diagnosis of a mental health condition but provide therapy to improve the situation.

  • There are many overlaps on what a counsellor and a clinical psychologist can do. Both mental health professionals will be able to provide consultations to clients in order to improve their mental health.

The key point of supporting our colleagues and potentially encouraging them to seek professional help is to position them in a place where they can find a non-judgmental and constructive space to express their experiences and emotions. Many people find that they work better and with more positive progress towards their goals and needs with a therapist or counsellor that they are comfortable with and that they can trust.

Written by:
Naluri