How do we have a conversation about wellbeing with someone who doesn’t want to talk about wellbeing?

There will be times when people seem to be struggling yet won’t accept any help you offer. It’s understandable to feel frustrated, distressed and powerless. However, it is important to acknowledge that they are an individual, and there are limits to what you can do when it comes to getting people to talk.

Core to psychological safety is that whatever someone’s response is, that’s OK. Not everyone will want to discuss wellbeing in their workplace. There are many reasons for this response, including:

  • For some people, work is a place where they get space away from things happening for them personally. 
  • You may have surprised the person. It is possible that the person was not aware they were showing signs of distress and therefore your enquiry might come as a shock. So their instant reaction may be to shut down. 
  • Accepting that one is having a hard time can be scary and difficult, so it makes sense that people might take time to accept that they need assistance.
  • You might not be the right person to have this type of conversation with this individual.

So what can you do in these circumstances:

  1. Stay calm and do not take the response personally. As we have discussed, there are many reasons the person may not want to talk. Importantly, leave the door open for another time, e.g. “I understand you don’t want to talk now, but I’d like to check in briefly with you again in a few days”. 
  2. In addition to the above, always let the person know you do care and that you’re available if they change their mind.
  3. Ask the person if there is anything you can do to help that does not involve talking right now, e.g. more regular breaks, flexible working times, different types of work tasks.
  4. Do not avoid the person if they turn down your offer to talk. Keep in normal contact, so if they are ready to talk, they feel you’re still available.
  5. There may be someone else who is better placed to talk with this person. Share your concern with that individual and ask them if they can connect with the person.
  6. Get support yourself. If you are worried about someone and they are not engaging, talk to someone about how you feel. These types of situations can be hard on everyone.

To make these conversations easier in the future, make it part of your leadership style to check in with your team members on a regular basis. Be interested in their life outside work, their goals and the things that are important to them. This means any wellbeing discussion will more likely be viewed as business as usual and thus a lot more comfortable for everyone. 

For many, talking about how they’re doing and what they need for their wellbeing is an important part of their work. As a leader, there is a skill in balancing these perspectives across a team of unique individuals.

Key things to keep in mind:

  • Be clear on why you’re having the conversation and your expectations of involvement, so people can be prepared and feel they can make an informed choice.
  • Create a common language in your team for wellbeing. For example, you might use a traffic light analogy for asking about people’s state of wellbeing. Green for flourishing, Amber for doing it a bit tough and Red for languishing. You can use fun labels that fit your business.
  • Create different forums to talk about wellbeing so people have a choice. Sometimes it may be a team meeting, others a 1:1 conversation, or it’ll come through a workplace survey. 
  • Know that across any change programme, there will be early adopters, those who come along as momentum builds, and those who may not feel comfortable joining the change for a long time. 

Team members who interact frequently with one another are often more able to pick up on the wellbeing struggles that their teammates are experiencing and can provide the natural, low-key support that is key to building momentum for a wellbeing strategy. Where these day-to-day struggles are feeling a bit much for a team-mate, it helps to have both managers and team members who are equipped and supported to encourage wellbeing in the workplace and who know how to have these conversations effectively, which is a learned skill that builds over time.

For this reason, it’s important that everyone – including managers and their staff – know how to have conversations about mental health and wellbeing. We have workshops, designed and delivered by our team of clinical psychologists, specifically for this reason – to support teams and leaders to promote and protect wellbeing in the workplace.

Whether you are trained in having wellbeing conversations or not, however, know that if you keep respect, care and kindness at the heart of your conversations, you’ll be starting from a good place.