Why don’t we talk about mental health in our teams & how to start

4 min read

Talking about mental health is rarely an easy task. Only recently and only in some circles the talk about our emotional struggles is starting to become wider and more acceptable. Still, there are plenty of teams in which talking about mental health & feeling down are conversations that you just don’t start.

I want to change that so in this article, I am going to talk about why it is so hard for team leaders to approach this topic and what can you do about it.


Why should we talk about this?

Let me tell you about “emotional contagion”. Its studies go back to the late 1800s but it is becoming more and more relevant nowadays. It basically says that emotions are contagious and our moods transfer from one another.

Just think about when someone smiles and you smile back. Or someone in your circle has a bad mood and it kinda eases into your mood as well, without you realising it. If you ever felt excited when people around you were in a good mood, that is emotional contagion.

What’s this have to do with talking about mental health? Well, quite a lot I would argue. Think about what happens in a meeting when someone is off, agitated, or negative? Or what happens in a product development meeting when people are energetic and bouncing ideas off each other? I would presume that those would be very different meetings. This study has shown that people are “walking mood inductors”, influencing the moods and behaviours of others.

We cannot work outside our emotions. We wake up with them, we make decisions with them and we basically function with them. When one member of the team is dealing with something, it will show and it will affect not only his performance and function but also the team’s. And if you are a team leader interested in growing your team and delivering results, then you have no other choice but to address this issue.

Why are we having such a hard time talking about this?

As a mental health professional, I have a lot of discussions with team managers on how to approach a person dealing with an emotional issue. They notice their colleagues becoming irritable. Some start manifesting self-doubt. Some become more distant or isolate themselves. Some even manifest anxiety symptoms. Some challenges are more evident, some just seem like a change in behaviour, that they cannot quite place.

The first thing I ask is: what is keeping you away from this topic? From the idea that we don’t know where to start to the fear that we might offend people, I heard a lot of different reasons that keep people from approaching this topic.

I made a list of the top 3 reasons that I hear most:

  • They don’t know how to start a difficult conversation

Starting a difficult conversation is never easy. We might think that we will cause conflict, that the other person might become upset, or sometimes we just don’t know how to handle the negative emotions that appear in us.

  •  They fear they will make it worse by talking about it

This is one of the most important reasons why team leads fear opening a mental health subject. Making things worse means opening up a topic that people don’t want to discuss or sometimes reminding the other person about a difficult moment they are experiencing and thus producing a negative emotion.

  • They fear they might intrude in a personal matter

This reason is very common in cultures where talking about personal stuff, especially negative stuff, is seen as a sign of weakness.

What do you do about it?

Talking about mental health is no easy task. It requires a bit of preparation but it definitely pays off.

  • Show compassion

Compassion is when we are really there for the other person, not only understanding what they are going through but also making an effort to help them. Encourage your colleague to talk about their feelings and reassure them that it is ok if they cannot do it now.

  • Don’t take it personally

It’s quite easy to blame someone else’s negative behaviour or hostility on their character, but, most often than not, it’s about their context. People are doing the best that they can and when someone is dealing with a negative emotion then it’s easy to lose track of things.
Show concern, tell them about what negative behaviour you noticed and tell them that you are worried it might affect them and the team. Then go to talk about what their options are and that you are ready to help them deal with it.

  • Share your experience.

Nothing says ‘I am there for you’ more than a shared experience. We’ve all been there, had days where we felt overwhelmed, agitated, negative and so we can all speak from experience. Share your story, share if you have had help, and be prepared to listen to the other person while they are telling their story.

  • Don’t become their therapist

Your role is not to make things better. You cannot do that, nor should you. Your goal here is to create a safe space, to make the other person feel heard and listened to, and to recommend getting more help. You can say something like: “I know this is hard for you and I want to help you, but I don’t have the right skills to do that. Let’s think about what you can do next to get the right kind of help?” If your company is offering a mental health program recommend that.

When you decide to integrate Acertivo into your team we will provide you with a Mental Health 1st Aid workshop as part of the onboarding experience. You will learn about:

  1. How do you recognise mental health challenges in your team (even in remote settings)
  2. How do you start and sustain a conversation
  3. What do you do when someone is not feeling well emotionally.


Finally, remember that we all have mental health and we live with it day in and day out. Deciding to address this topic is a sign of a healthy culture and a good way to create cohesion in your team.

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