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MODULE 3

LEADING SENSITIVE CONVERSATIONS

As a Leader, your team looks to you for direction and guidance. In the realm of mental health, this means that when someone on your team is struggling, they may come to you for support. Furthermore, since you are responsible for performance management, there may be times when you need to initiate a conversation with a crew member whose mental health is affecting their job duties. These can be sensitive conversations to have; luckily, there are tools to help. In this module, you will learn strategies for having an effective conversation with a crew member who is experiencing mental health problems.

EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION

When holding a conversation with a struggling member of your team or crew, leaders and supervisors fulfill their mandate to: 

  • Ensure the psychological health & safety of their crew member

  • Confirm that their well-being is appropriately supported

  • Verify that they can continue to work safely

  • Take appropriate action to address any issues related to poor performance and the well-being of the overall team or crew.

 

The diagram below shows the stages of a sensitive conversation and key strategies to consider during each stage.

Before
Start
During
End
After

Managing a Sensitive Conversation

  • Move to a private space to talk, keep a relaxed demeanour, and emphasize confidentiality.
     

  • Stay clam, inquire about how they are doing, ask simple, open, non-judgmental questions.
     

  • Listen emphatically, reassure them you want to help.

  • Discuss whether there are parts of their role they are struggling with.

  • Take a break if emotions are escalating or you need to time to think.
     

  • Ask if there is anything else they think should be discussed.

  • Highlight sources of support (e.g. EAP or community resources).

  • Agree on a plan for what should happen next.
     

  • Think about potential support that may help.

  • Monitor the situation, seek advice from HR if needed.

  • Be available and approachable in case they want to talk again.

BEFORE THE CONVERSATION:

Before you initiate or agree to participate in a sensitive conversation, first check in with yourself. Is this a good time for you to have this conversation? Are you feeling calm enough, well enough, strong enough?

If you are, great! If not, take a moment to get grounded yourself so you can focus on your crew member in the moment. If a crew member asks to talk to you and it’s not a good time, it’s okay to let them know that for you to be able to best support them, another time would be best. Be sure to offer a specific alternate time so that your crew member knows you are taking them seriously.

In preparing to talk with a crew member, it can help to review pertinent information such as policies for confidentiality and the resources that Unions offer their members in distress. Consider what you have observed in the crew member’s behaviour and performance that concerns you and note examples of this. When you are ready to start the conversation, ensure there is privacy or move to a quiet, private space where you both will be comfortable.

STARTING THE CONVERSATION:


When you start the conversation, the primary goal is to create an atmosphere of safety. You can do this by using relaxed, open body language, a calm tone of voice, and by asking simple, open-ended and non-judgmental questions, such as how they are doing. Make it clear that anything discussed will be kept confidential unless agreed upon otherwise.

If you sense your crew member is having trouble opening up, you can focus on observable changes in their performance that you’ve noticed (recall the PACE model from Module 2) and share your concern for their well-being.

For example, the start of your conversation might sound like:

 “I wanted to talk to you because I’ve noticed … I was wondering if you’d be comfortable to talk to me about what’s going on, so I can be a support to you.”

DURING THE CONVERSATION:


As the conversation progresses, listening empathetically will be paramount to supporting your crew member. Empathetic communication is the ability to explore and reflect a person’s feelings accurately. When a reporting crew member talks to you, sensitively communicating your understanding of what they are saying will help them feel seen and heard. Not only will this help nurture and sustain your relationship with your crew member, it will also reduce the level of embarrassment they may feel. If someone feels embarrassed or intimated during a conversation, it is more likely that they won’t honestly share what is going on for them or ask for support.

Sympathy is a related term, which can sometimes be confused with empathy. While often well-intentioned, expressing sympathy can leave the recipient feeling that others have taken pity on them, or are feeling sorry for them. While this can create a sense of inferiority and disempowerment, empathy empowers others and positions everyone on the same level.

It is valuable for Managers and Supervisors to take an empathetic stance instead of a sympathetic stance. To learn more about the difference between these two terms, watch this 3-minute animated video voiced by Brené Brown.

If your crew member discloses that they are experiencing a mental health or substance use problem, discuss if they have seen a doctor and if so, what they recommended and whether any medication has been prescribed that may affect their performance or make it unsafe for them to perform certain duties. You should also explore whether there are any parts of their role they are struggling with or feel unable to do.

If your crew member becomes emotional or upset during the conversation, stay calm and assure them that you are only trying to support them, and as their supervisor, you are responsible for ensuring they are coping. You can also adjourn for a break if necessary. Keep in mind that it is the ongoing right of either you or your crew member to ask for time or space. If emotions are escalating or you need time to think through something your crew member has shared, it’s okay to take a break and suggest a time to reconvene.

ENDING THE CONVERSATION:

If your crew member disclosed a mental health problem, at the end of the conversation, remind or inform them of the forms of support and resources which are available for Union Members such as their Member/Employee Assistance Program (MAP or EAP), extended health benefits and accommodations.  You can also highlight community health services and other supports (such as AA groups, peer support groups etc.). If they are hesitant to call or reach out on their own, you could suggest to make the initial call together. It is important to agree on the next step and if a further meeting will be arranged to discuss support options.

If your crew member states that there is no problem, respect their position. Assure them that you are available any time if they would like to speak with you.

Remember: you are not there to diagnose your crew member’s problem. You are there to provide empathetic and practical support, manage performance, and be a bridge to other supportive resources.

When it seems like most of the important points have been covered, it is helpful to ask your crew member if there is anything else they think needs to be discussed. This will help signify that the conversation is ending as well as give them a chance to add final thoughts or questions.

To conclude the conversation, agree on a plan for next steps including a follow-up conversation, as appropriate.

AFTER THE CONVERSATION:

You will likely reflect on the conversation you had with your crew member once it is finished. If you have your own questions about how you can further support your crew member, you can ask HR or call your MAP or EAP provider to seek guidance. Monitor your crew member’s behaviours and performance for the short-term to see if things are improving and to look for opportunities to help. Continue to stay relaxed and approachable around your crew so that they know they can come back to you for support if needed.

 

BOUNDARIES OF A LEADER OR SUPERVISOR

Maintaining your boundaries is important for many reasons – it ensures professionalism and it is vital for the Supervisor’s own mental well-being.

If a Leader has too much involvement in a team or crew member’s mental health problem, it may lead to burnout and compassion fatigue. In order to find a healthy balance, you should learn how to be at an ideal level of involvement. Maintaining your boundaries includes being able to recognize your strengths and limitations, being clear about your role and not stepping outside of it, consulting with others when you are unsure and not doing guess-work.

Offer support without making the problem of your crew member of your own, and be clear about policies and procedures, including confidentiality and accommodation.

THE "RESPONSIBLE FOR - RESPONSIBLE TO" MODEL

The “Responsible for- Responsible To” Model illustrates the ideal involvement of a leader. Ideally, a leader doesn’t take on responsibility for their team or crew members but feels responsible to them. The chart below highlights the differences in these perspectives. Take a look to see which side of the model you are leaning towards and where there is room to improve:

WHEN I FEEL RESPONSIBLE FOR OTHERS...

I fix

I protect

I rescue

I control

I carry their feelings

I don't listen

I feel tired

I feel anxious

I feel fearful

I feel guilty

I am concerned with the situation

I am concerned with the answers

I am concerned with being right

I am concerned with the details

I expect the person to live up to my expectations

I manipulate to try to control

WHEN I FEEL RESPONSIBLE TO OTHERS...

I empathize

I encourage

I support

I congront

I acknowledge their feelings

I am sensitive

I feel relaxed

I feel free

I feel secure

I feel confident

I am concerned with relating

I am concerned with feelings

I am concerned with the person

I expect the person to be responsible for her/his own actions

I am a helper-guide

I can trust and let go

I believe if I just share myself, the other person has enough to make it

If you would like to explore mental health and addiction resources, feel free to reach out to your MAP or EAP provider or visit the resources section of this website.

References:

Acas, Coronavirus and mental health at work; Available at: www.acas.org.uk/coronavirus-mental-health/supporting-staff-mental-health

Acas, Approaching a sensitive conversation regarding mental ill health; Available at: https://archive.acas.org.uk/media/4931/Approaching-a-sensitive-conversation-regarding-mental-ill-health/pdf/Tips_to_approach_having_sensitive_conversations_2018.pdf

FSEAP

Vancouver, Responsible to- Responsible for Model; created by Gregg Taylor