Skip to content

How can employers and managers help people with poor mental health?

Nick Elston

I’m often asked the question: How can we help people? Actually, the more powerful question is ‘how can’t we help people?’ and it is one that I will be exploring in my blog.

This may seem like a strange take on the situation that we currently find ourselves in – as HR leaders, but also as a global community; I mean surely the desire to help as many people as possible should be considered a kindness.

With increasingly more people struggling with mental health challenges, and anxiety and stress levels growing in the face of economic uncertainty, cost of living struggles and other personal issues, no doubt there will be an increase in the number of conversations you will be having with your people about these adversities.

Do not try to ‘fix’ people

However, it seems to be a human flaw – a kind one, done with the best of intentions – but many of us have an in-built desire to ‘fix’ anyone that comes to us. The problem is this may be damaging you and potentially discouraging you from helping more people.

We immediately feel their pain, we shoulder their burden and before you know it, if you have a team of ten people – you have eleven people’s burdens on your shoulders – and that’s before you even get home!

Or we will become so anxious, scared or overwhelmed by the person’s challenge that we unwittingly keep them at arm’s length, feeling it is safer not to engage with them.

So, this soon very much becomes about self-awareness, self-protection but also taking a step back to truly look at what is happening in these interactions you are having.

Based on my work as a speaker, coach and mentor in the mental health space – plus my lived experience of mental illness, mental health challenges, experiencing burnout and ultimately my breakdown – I want to give you a unique view, one which when implemented by my clients has worked magnificently, increased engagement and empowered more people to be helped – across many different organisations and industries.

So, let’s take this from the beginning…

Most people want to be heard and understood

Essentially in life, people just want to be truly heard and truly understood – but now, more than ever, we don’t feel that way.

If one of your team comes to you, to share a challenge with you – firstly, that’s a massive ‘well done’ to you – for building the trust and rapport required to secure someone’s confidence to engage with you.

But, unless you are a medical professional, people aren’t coming to be fixed – they are coming to you to be heard.

If our responsibility isn’t to try to ‘fix’ people, what should we do?

The power of truly listening

Our responsibility, as I see it, is simply to listen – truly listen – put your laptop down, your device away and give them your undivided attention for a human-to-human conversation.

Also, in my experience – both personally and from my work with global HR leaders and team managers – the problem they come to you with isn’t actually THE problem – it’s a bi-product, or symptom, of the challenge.

For example, with mental health – especially stress and anxiety – the ‘bi-products’ could be;

  • Defensive behaviour
  • Aggression
  • High sensitivity or insecurity
  • Lethargy, fatigue or low energy
  • Lack of confidence, courage or conviction
  • Situation avoidance

So, this is why we need to truly listen, to engage and question – have those human-to-human conversations – to really dig deep into the source of the issue.

Don’t be afraid to show more of yourself, to forge a deeper relationship, conversation, and engagement with that person.

Only then, can we showcase our real responsibility – to use ‘active signposting’ to guide them to a solution.

Active sign-posting helps people to help themselves

In my experience, when people feel truly heard, truly understood – 90% of the time they feel empowered to find their own way forward. However, we can boost that by getting good at knowing what solutions there are to support that person – internally and externally.

Also, be prepared, because if people open up to you about mental health – as they do with me – then they will trust you enough to also share other areas of life – racism, abuse, grief, coming out – so get good at knowing how you can help in any given situation.

The term I use is ‘active signposting’ which is simply knowing what solutions there are within your organisation – employee assistance programmes, counselling, GP services, therapies – or externally with organisations such as the NHS, Mind, Time To Change, Rethink and Mental Health UK.

Because this is a passion for me, I have also forged relationships with organisations locally to me who specialise in supporting people with all challenges – which then gives me all the tools that I need to support people in the best way that I can.

Switching your mindset from one of trying to ‘fix’ people to one of empowering people eases your burden, encourages you to have more conversations as you will have more to give – rather than keeping people at arm’s length.

This one mindset switch is one of the most powerful tools that I use with clients as it has the biggest cultural impact – but also on a self-care level, it helps us stay fully charged, unburdened and ignited to help more people through life’s challenges, personally and professionally.

As I always say: “We have all of the answers, we just don’t ask ourselves the right questions!” We can show kindness and compassion without giving ourselves away – whilst empowering more people more than we ever have done before.

You’ve got this!

Nick Elston was the guest speaker at Allen Associates HR Hub in February 2023. To find out more about Nick and his work with organisations across the UK and internationally, please visit