Let's Talk: How to Start a Meaningful Wellness Conversation

Organisations need to not only encourage leaders to undertake wellness conversations, but also train them in the best practices needed to help people to open up about their physical and mental wellbeing.

Jessica Conser, Ph.D.
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“How’s it going?”

That ubiquitous question starts many conversations between managers and their employees. But as many of us know, it rarely ever produces a meaningful or honest answer. 

The perfunctory “how’s it going?” seems to have become even more pervasive during the pandemic, when we know that so many people who are responding “okay” are, in fact, struggling with the ongoing grind that comes with COVID-19 and the harsh realities of remote work. 

Given the challenges being faced by all organisations, it’s no wonder, really, that people leaders the world over do a generally cursory job of checking in on the mental and physical wellbeing of their employees. It hasn’t been a priority. However, in the late stages of the pandemic, mental health is eroding and the inability for managers and employees to talk about wellbeing has taken on a whole new level of concern.

Work-related stress and burnout, which was declared by the WHO in 2019 as its own health concern, has become a pandemic within the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent research confirms that this pre-pandemic concern has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A survey by The Adecco Group (TAG) and LHH of nearly 15,000 white-collar workers from around the globe found 38 percent were suffering from burnout, and 32 percent said their mental health had declined during the pandemic. Burnout was most pronounced among Generation Z (45 percent) and Millennials (42 percent).

Those are worrisome numbers made even more concerning by the fact that people leaders simply do not know how bad things have become.

Two-thirds of respondents to the TAG/LHH survey said their leaders are not asking regularly about their mental wellbeing.

We started to wonder, how could leaders be so disconnected from the mental and physical wellness of their employees? It all goes back to the relationship between manager and employee, and an inability to build trust and engage in meaningful conversations exacerbated in remote working environments. 

Managers are not equipped to have meaningful conversations, particularly on mental health

It’s already well-established that meaningful discussions between managers and the people they lead are a key element in building greater engagement and productivity. In research that stretches back years, Gallup has found that employees who have focused conversations with their managers are nearly three times more engaged than those who lack regular 1-on-1 conversations.

And yet, despite clear data supporting the value of these conversations, managers struggle. Once again, Gallup found that only 23 percent of respondent employees get meaningful feedback on their performance and career.

What is preventing managers from engaging in simple yet effective conversations with their employees? The TAG/LHH survey found that managers did not have the confidence to even start the conversation. More than half (53 percent) of managers surveyed said they have not found it easy to identify when staff are suffering from mental health issues or burnout.

There is also a concern that leaders cannot start these conversations because they, too, are suffering from burnout and mental health issues. The TAG/LHH survey found that four in 10 younger leaders are suffering from burnout.

A crash course for managers on the wellness conversation

As noted earlier, many managers never start wellness or career conversations because they simply don’t know where to start. In many ways, that’s not surprising; more personal conversations between co-workers can be a challenge and backfire if not handled in the appropriate fashion.

Many organisations promote people into people-leading positions without helping them develop the soft skills necessary to succeed. Good leadership today requires heavy doses of compassion, empathy and an emphasis on listening skills. Unfortunately, those are not the skills that help many people get promoted in the first place.

Let’s look at some ways to start and structure a wellness conversation.

1/An effective wellness conversation starts with transparency. If you really want to know how someone is doing, you need to be upfront that their wellness is the reason you are having this conversation. Exhausted platitudes and canned greetings will not convince someone to open up. Acknowledge that this has been a difficult year for everyone. Remember that many people are reluctant to reveal burnout or mental health issues out of a concern it will limit their career opportunities. This requires you to establish a safe, non-judgmental environment through total transparency. 

2/Explain to your employee that these conversations are part of the new normal. Let your employee know right away that the conversation you’re about to have is about their mental and physical wellbeing. Make sure they know it’s the first in series of check-ins with all employees, not just them. Instead of broad, cursory questions, ask for specifics. Ask them to describe specific concerns, both at home and work, that are affecting their productivity or engagement. Seek to understand what fuels their engagement.  

3/Utilise the best practices of the coaching mindset. Good leaders often employ the best practices of leadership coaching, particularly an emphasis on listening rather than just preaching to an employee. This is a critical element that can make or break the trust necessary to have a meaningful wellness conversation. If a leader talks too much about themselves or drags the conversation away from the concerns of the individual employee, most will just give up on sharing any important details. Show them that you hear them by listening and paraphrasing back key concerns that they are raising. You can also use a metaphor to help the employee connect with their wellbeing state. Consider a battery with indicators at full, half and low charge – ask them where they would plot themselves given their current situation. When are they at their fullest charge? Which activities deplete them their mental and physical wellbeing the most? What can you do as their leader to help them re-charge? 

4/Dedicate to finding co-solutions to any problems that come up. Opening up the conversation and listening are good, but most people want to know that their manager can help find solutions to work-related problems. If you do get someone to open up about their mental and physical wellbeing, you need to be prepared to take action to help them do better. A wellness conversation will lose its meaning if it is not accompanied by action. Familiarise yourself with the resources available through your company. If you don’t have an immediate solution, let them know that you’ll come back to them after you’ve had a chance to investigate.  

Having a meaningful wellness conversation is not the most difficult task that a manager is asked to do. But given its ambiguous and intimate nature, many people leaders may be uncomfortable about engaging with their employees to find out how they are really doing.

Organisations need to not only encourage leaders to undertake these conversations, but also train them in the best practices needed to help people to open up about their physical and mental wellbeing.

Open dialogue, with meaningful action, will not only help your employees weather the pandemic storm, but will also set them up to be more engaged and productive well into the future.

Download The Pandemic Within the Pandemic: Why Leaders Need to Reconnect on Mental Health at Work and read more about the worrisome trends and how organisations and leaders can build wellbeing into existing business practices.

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