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What can you do if an employee may be under stress?

stress free

Approximately one in five Australian adults will experience a mental illness in any given year. While some employees may openly disclose that they have a health issue, what can you do in circumstances where you suspect that an individual in your workplace may be experiencing stress or a mental health issue?

As an employer, steps do need to be taken to ensure you are meeting your occupational health and safety obligations to provide a safe workplace, and to ensure that the employee is fit to perform the duties of their current role without potential aggravation if there are concerns regarding their mental health.

Although it can be daunting to approach an employee who appears to be suffering from stress or who is struggling with a mental health illness, it is important that such signed not be ignored.

Letting your employees know that you are concerned for their wellbeing, and being available to offer support, can not only assist with their ability to manage their situation better, it can help minimise any negative impacts on their capacity to perform their role, and could help prevent more serious situations from arising.

The organisation, RUOK?, who work strongly to promote mental health, have produced a useful guide to assist employers with being able to approach and communicate with employees who they feel may be struggling. They recommend that four main steps be followed, which we have summarized below:

  1. Identify when an employee may need help
  2. Prepare to approach the employee
  3. Have a conversation
  4. Handling emotions that may arise
  1. Identify when an employee may need help

Signs that an employee may be struggling can include:

  1. Changes in physical appearance – looks tired or run-down, lacks energy, health problems such as headaches or migraines, eating more or less than usual, increased alcohol consumption, signs of nervousness
  2. Mood changes – irritable (or more so than usual), anxious, worried, emotional overreactions, appears overwhelmed by normally routine work tasks
  3. Behaviour changes – withdrawn, easily distracted, takes on extra work to avoid social interaction, job performance declines, finds it hard to “switch off”
  4. Changes in thought patterns and communication – frequent negative interpretations, melodramatic responses (e.g. “they are bullying me”), confused or irrational comments

In situations where at least two of the above changes have occurred over a short period, there is an increased likelihood that an employee may require support or assistance.

  1. Prepare prior to approaching the employee

Before approaching an employee who you believe may be struggling or who may require support and assistance, it is important that you:

  • Are ready – consider whether you are in a good headspace yourself, whether you are willing to genuinely listen, and whether you have the necessary amount of time to dedicate to the discussion?
  • Are prepared to have the conversation – before having the conversation, you need to ensure that you are again ready to actively listen, that you accept that you may not have all the answers to provide to the employee, are prepared and accepting that the employee may become emotional, upset or embarrassed during the discussion.
  • Time the discussion appropriately - choose the right moment and conduct the discussion is a private and informal location. It is essential that you allow enough time for a proper conversation to be held.
  1. Have a genuine and open conversation
  • Ask the employee how they are and let them know gently that you have noticed that they do not seem the be quite themselves lately. You can mention specific things that you have noticed, such as “you seem less chatty than usual”, or “you look tired”.
  • Listen without judgement. Do not interrupt or try to rush the employee and do not dismiss their responses. It is important that you remain calm and that you do not take any anger, if expressed by the employee in their responses, personally.

Make it clear to the employee that you are only asking because you are concerned about their wellbeing and that you want to support them.

  • Encourage the employee to action to help themselves. To do this, you can ask the employee questions such as: “what is a first step we can take”, “what do you need me to do”, “how can I help?”. You can work with the employee to explore options available to them such as counselling, talking to close friends or family, and seeking medical assistance.

After your initial discussion, it is recommended that you contact the employee again a few days later to check in with them and to follow up on how they are going. If their situation still appears to be unresolved or not improving, you can again recommend and support them to look at some more formal forms of support or assistance.

4.Handling an employee’s reactions

During your conversations with the employee it is important to ensure that you remain patient and non-judgmental. Do not assume the reasons for any emotional responses demonstrated by the employee.

Where strong emotions arise during the discussion, allow the employee to let off steam and continue to listen actively the whole way. Sometimes just being there to listen can be a great support.

Regardless of what is said by the employee, remain calm and do not take things said personally. Once the employee has had an opportunity to deal with, and address, their emotions, you can support them to approach each any issues in a more rational manner.

Some tips on how to address emotions demonstrated during such a conversation are:


  • Say words such as “I can see this has upset you. Please start at the beginning and tell me what I need to know”.
  • Encourage and allow the employee to communicate all the factors that is causing the anger.
  • Listen actively and make it clear to the employee that you are interested in what they are saying.
  • Where appropriate and relevant, offer the employee avenues for any specific complaints to be heard.


  • Speak in short, concise sentences.
  • Display concern and care for the employee.
  • Stay calm. Speak at an even pace and in a lower tone of voice.


  • This emotion is hard on both parties. You may empathise but feel helpless because you cannot remove the employee’s sadness or pain.
  • Use empathetic words such as: “I can see this must be difficult for you”.
  • Use silences as permission to provide you with more information.
  • If the employee begins to cry, sit and wait with lowered eyes until he/she finishes. You could say: “I’ll sit here with you and when you’re ready we can talk further”.

If the employee does not want to talk to you about how they are feeling, or about any matters that may be affecting them, do not take it personally. Instead, you can suggest that they talk to someone that they trust and feel comfortable with, such as a close friend or family member.

Information in HR Advice Online guides and blog posts is meant purely for educational discussion of human resources issues. It contains only general information about human resources matters and due to factors such as government legislation changes, may not be up-to-date at the time of reading. It is not legal advice and should not be treated as such.

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