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Critical Conversations

Submitted by: Ruthann Weeks, Principal Consultant, Harmony In The Workplace

Maybe you have heard? We are in a mental health crisis. The regular stressors of life have been amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic and more people than ever are struggling with their mental health. As we talk more about mental health, those people feeling isolated and alone in the shadows are more apt to seek help and talk about their struggles and seek support. These are the critical conversations that can help keep someone safe.

How safe are we to share our mental health struggles at work?

We don’t check our thoughts and feelings at the door when we start our workday. Sometimes the commute to our work is a couple of strides across the room these days. If we are working for an organization that embraces psychological safety and is intentional about providing support, and we feel safe to share, we may be honest at a check-in with a supervisor or co-worker and be able to say, “I’m not doing so great today. I am struggling to stay focused, I’m stressed, I’m anxious. I am just not myself today.” Hopefully, the person on the receiving end of that statement will respond with compassion and grace. This is the ideal.

The unfortunate truth is that, while there is a lot more talk about mental health, there are many team leaders and business leaders that are not sure how to do that check-in or respond, and workers are not feeling safe to share when they are struggling with stress, anxiety, or mental illness.

That Check-in Conversation

How do I approach someone who may be struggling? What if I say something that will make things worse? Maybe they will be embarrassed if I tell them I am concerned about them. What if they get angry?

What of having a check in conversation were easy? What if having a genuine conversation about how someone is doing was a regular part of doing business in a culture of psychological safety and support? How would that feel?

Initiating a conversation when you are concerned for someone may not be comfortable, or easy, but what if there was a framework for the conversation that was?

At Harmony In The Workplace, we teach a master class called Mental Health SOS™ Critical Conversations where we practice the SNAP™ model to have that conversation that may help keep someone safe:

  • See it – Get curious about what it is you are seeing in someone that is concerning you. Maybe there is a worker who was always lively and gregarious in the office that is now withdrawn and sullen when you interact with them, either in person or on-line. Perhaps someone you previously had a close friendship with is now withdrawn and distant.

  • Name it – Get clear about the behaviour you are concerned about. Stick to the facts of what you observe. Don’t gossip about your concerns with others.

  • Ask about it – Ask for permission to have that conversation. “Hey, can I talk to you about something?”, assuming they say yes, “I’ve noticed that you seem withdrawn (name the specific behaviour you’ve observed) than usual over the last few days, and I just wanted to make sure you are ok. Has anything changed for you?”

  • Let them guide the conversation. They may share that they have not been sleeping well, they may share that there is something going on with a family member or loved one that is concerning them. They may say they are fine. Whatever they say, is ok. If they shut the conversation down, it can end here by you saying, “I just want you to know that I care and that I am a safe place if you ever want to talk, okay?”

  • Permission to provide support – If they do open-up about what is going on with them, a trauma informed response might be, “That must be a really hard thing to deal with. Is it okay if I offer some support?” If they agree, tell them about resources you are aware of that can help them. Maybe you have had a similar experience and can share how you handled it, or what worked for you. Don’t trivialize their problem, or try to fix them, but rather support them in their journey.

It’s important to respect the boundaries that someone has and not bulldoze them with advice or trivialize what they are going through. The conversation model will be easier for someone who is more naturally empathetic but can be learned by anyone and get easier with practice.

The goal is to be intentional about creating an organizational culture of safety and support. Being relational and supportive is a good place to start. Knowing someone cares can go a long way towards helping keep someone safe. We are all in this together!

Reach out to Ruthann:




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