I'm worried about one of my employees

Somebody in your team starts behaving differently. It's great that you're taking it seriously! Broaching possible problems sooner rather than later is important, especially at work. These conversation tips will help.

If you have noticed that a member of staff, for several weeks:

  • is working more slowly or making more mistakes
  • often can't concentrate or reacts irritably
  • is often absent or gets in late
  • somehow gives the impression of having changed or being sad
  • is piling up overtime even though the workload hasn't changed

Then you should raise it with them.

Talking helps

We all experience mental stress at times. If stress situations persist, this can lead to overstrain and the emergence of mental illnesses. This often affects the quality of our work, or results in sick leave. Talking helps to stop it going that far.

Talking makes solutions possible

In the working environment many people still feel inhibited about raising the subject of mental problems: employees are afraid of being stigmatised, and managers don't want to become too familiar with their staff. This reticence on both sides often makes the problem worse.

The sooner you react, the greater the prospects of success.

Has the situation lasted a long time, is it confused? Have initial conversations made no difference? Has the staff member been off sick?

If your company has a counselling service or an HR department, ask them for support.

If not, ask the invalidity insurance (IV) office in your region for advice.

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«I just want to have a chat about how you are traveling»

Example dialogue of a team leader with an affected employee.

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«Sometimes caring for staff means that you have to be honest and point out that you are concerned.»

Small business owners about mental health in SME.

Start a conversation

Get ready

The following Conversation tips will give you ideas on how to proceed. Think about how you will do it. If you're not sure, talk to your line manager, somebody in HR or the social counselling service.

Find a suitable time

Pick a day when neither of you is fully booked. That will give you plenty of time, and you'll keep a clear head for a useful talk. Say briefly what it's about.

I'm worried about you. I'd like to sit down with you to see what the problem is, and how we can support you.

Find a suitable place

where you won't be disturbed. Book a room where you can't be seen by others.

This is important in the first conversation

You might start it like this:

I'm worried about you. I'd like to talk to you about what I've observed.

I have the impression that things haven't been going well for you lately. Might you and I have a look at how the situation could be improved?

Explain your plan

A two-stage process is useful. In this first meeting, describe what you've observed and listen to what your staff member is experiencing. Then you can both reflect on what's been said, and consider possible solutions. At the second meeting you can agree specific action.

Today I'd like to describe what I've observed and hear what you think. I'd like the two of us to meet again in three days' time to see if we can find solutions.

Describe what you see

Say what you have seen, being as empathic and respectful as possible. But you must be clear and explicit. Speak from the heart. Say what you see and what you are thinking. Don't say what you think is wrong with your staff member.

I can see how dedicated you are to your work, and I really appreciate that. But lately I've noticed that you're making more mistakes than you used to. With orders, for example, and with record-keeping.

I have come to appreciate your qualities as a very friendly, keen staff member. But lately there have been complaints from customers: they feel that your treatment of them has been unfriendly. That doesn't square with what I know of you.

You're doing more and more overtime. I can see that you're dedicated, and I really appreciate that. But I've formed the impression that you're not achieving as much as you used to.

Listen to what the other person is going through

Ask the employee how they see the situation and what they think is wrong. Try to understand exactly what they feel and what they are going through.

How do you see the situation?

What is your take on the situation?

There's no need to comment on what you hear, or to analyse it. Sum up what you have heard in your own words. This indicates that you have understood it, and it makes misunderstandings less likely.

Let me see if I understand you correctly. You feel that your work is getting on top of you, and you can't see a way out?

I hear that you carry on working after close of business, you no longer sleep well and you can't concentrate.

Say you see change as essential, and specify something for them to do before your next meeting

At the end of the meeting, make it clear that you want the two of you to agree on how to make things change for the better. You should expressly mention all the things that are going well. Focusing solely on the negative is frustrating. It makes possible solutions harder to find. Utilise your staff member's strengths to find the solution. Arrange a follow-up meeting in three to five days, and ask them to do something to prepare for it:

It's important both to you and to the business for something to change. I'm confident that we'll nail it.

I can clearly sense that you want to do your job well. What, specifically, do we have to change for the situation to improve?

I shall try to come up with at least three ideas at our next meeting. Will you do the same?

Tips for a follow-up conversation

Specify targets and action

At the follow-up meeting, first make it clear once more that something has to change – and emphasise that it's important to you for your staff member to get better.

It's important to me that you get better. I'll help. For you to get better, something has to change. And it's important for the company to stop getting customer complaints.

If you are to make as few mistakes as possible and get your work done on time, something has to change. I'm confident that it will, because I sense your motivation. I want to support you. I'm ready to make my contribution.

The two of you should discuss what action you think would make sense. The range of options is wide, and it's naturally very dependent on the situation. Make sure the employee retains those duties that they enjoy and do well. Emphasise that they perform these duties well.

Possible action in the workplace

Changes in the workload

  • delegate some duties to other employees (possibly for a limited period)
  • jointly prioritise duties and set milestones
  • assign the employee to a different area or team.

Changes to the employee's working hours and workplace

  • consider reducing weekly working hours
  • change in the workplace (to somewhere quieter, or do a few days' work from home).

Personal support

  • set up regular brief update meetings
  • coaching by an external or internal specialist
  • stress management training or similar.

In many cases it will be helpful to agree on action to be taken outside the workplace:

  • consulting a doctor, for example to analyse the employee's insomnia or make sure they're not suffering from burnout
  • consulting a psychologist, for example for help to deal with stress or to head off a burnout.

After the conversation

Make a written record of what you have agreed

When multiple emotions are in play, the binding aspects of the conversation can subsequently get overlooked. You should both sign what has been agreed between you to avoid future discord.

Put the team in the picture

Talk to your staff member about which of you will put the immediate team in the picture and what you will both say. Open communication forestalls rumours. And the team can also have a supportive effect.

Stay on the ball

Change takes time. Depending on how serious the problem is, it can take months to really improve. Set realistic schedules, and stay in regular touch. If the agreed measures need changing, change them.

If you want to know more about how to talk about mental stress and problems, you'll find further inspiration in the conversation tips "I'm worried about someone in my private life".

If the situation doesn't improve

Insist on involving a specialist

If the situation doesn't improve, you can insist on involving a specialist – because employees are subject to what is known as a damage-limitation obligation. Make it clear that it's not about medical details or information on their private lives, it's about jointly looking at work-related questions. One of these might be: what additional support does the employee need in the workplace?

Suitable specialists may be:

  • case managers (internal or external)
  • job coaches, offered by the IV, for example
  • specialist psychiatrists or psychologists

Suggest including a specialist in your conversations

It may be helpful to you and your staff member for you to talk to their therapist or coach. Employees can release the specialist from their confidentiality obligation to let this happen. It's important for employees always to be involved in these conversations.

Brochure on mental health in the workplace with more tips and contacts.

Donwload (PDF, 12 pages)