Leading sensitive conversations

Line managers have a vitally important role to play in supporting the health and wellbeing of their team members but, sometimes, talking about other people’s health and wellbeing can be a daunting challenge. What’s important to bear in mind is that you really don’t need to be a health expert to talk to someone about their health and wellbeing issues – often, the most powerful thing you can ask is just “how are you” or “how can I help you?”.

If you are concerned about an individual, or an individual has approached you, ask them if they would like to arrange a meeting and when would suit them best. Once you have a meeting planned, make sure you’re prepared. If you already know the health issue your employee wants to discuss, do some research to understand the basics, but don’t feel that you are expected to be an expert in the field. It will also be useful to have an understanding of what Network Rail can offer the employee so you can advise them when you meet with them on how you and the company may be able to help. Focus on the employee and the contributions they have made as it may be important to remind them that they are a valued part of the team and so they know you are there for support if needed. Finally, consider what kinds of questions you may want to ask the employee – open questions will encourage an employee to discuss more and request support. However, always remember that you are not there to be a counselor or to probe into an employee’s personal life, and also remember that they may refuse the support you offer and this is absolutely their decision.

Starting Conversations

When leading a sensitive conversation try to create an atmosphere in which the person feels safe and comfortable, let them know that what you discuss with respect to health is confidential, this way they may feel more open to talking to you.

There are many ways you can start a conversation and you may want to change your tactics depending on who you are talking to. Some people prefer to get straight onto the topic at hand whereas others may prefer to discuss everyday things before moving onto more sensitive areas. It is therefore important to know the employee you’re talking to be able to gauge what approach they require.

When starting a conversation it is important to remember it is about the employee; don’t jump to conclusions about what they are going through and try not to draw on personal experience as although you may feel you relate they may have a different opinion. Ask them how they are feeling and what they would like to discuss, this provides them and you with a safety net by getting them to discuss what they are comfortable sharing with you.

Conversation tips

Every conversation will be different however there a few points to keep in mind when leading a sensitive conversation:

  • DO Ask open questions
  • DO Talk but listen too
  • DO Remind them you are there for support
  • DO Provide information about the Employee Assistance Programme
  • DO Set a time to meet again
  • DON’T Think you know everything
  • DON’T Try to provide a diagnosis
  • DON’T Offer a pep talk

Follow Up

Your organization’s involvement doesn’t end with this meeting. You may have signposted the employee onto further support which is great, however it doesn’t mean you should stop asking how things are. Agree to meet again in a few weeks to see how things have changed and to show the employee you still care.

Finally don’t forget these meetings should be kept confidential and information should not be shared with anyone unless agreed with the employee. So keep any notes you made in a secure place to maintain your employee’s confidentiality.

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