How to help when someone is not okay

What do you do if someone tells you they are not okay? It’s not easy to know what to say, but we have some tips to help you.

“How are you? Are you okay?”

Often, it’s a just a throwaway comment, a polite introduction to the rest of a conversation, but it could be the most important question you ask that day. 

And what do you do if someone says, “No, actually, I’m not okay”? 

It’s important to encourage them to talk about it, but make it clear you would like to hear about what’s bothering them. They shouldn’t feel like you’re forcing them to talk. A simple phrase like, “Let’s have a chat” or “What’s been going on with you?” could do the trick, letting them know you’re open to having a conversation.

The best thing you can do is listen

When someone finds the courage to tell you they are not okay, the most supportive thing you can do for them is listen.

Debbie Bullock, Wellbeing Lead at Aviva, says: “Sometimes, people just need to be heard. Even if our gut reaction is to try to solve everything, that might not be what’s required. Sometimes, just listening is the best thing to do. 

“The individual may have their own plans for how to get out of the current situation. Ask how you can support them with that. Every journey and situation will be personal and unique. What works for one will not always work for another.” 

Don’t try to rush the conversation but let them know you are listening but nodding or making minimal encouraging noises like ‘mmm’. If you’re talking digitally, make sure you turn your camera on, so they know they have your full attention.

15 tips on how to respond if someone says they’re not okay

How to keep talking

  • Keep the chat positive and supportive, exploring the issues and how you may be able to help
  • Keep your body language open and non-confrontational
  • Be empathetic and take them seriously
  • Don’t offer glib advice such as ‘pull yourself together’ or ‘cheer up’
  • Take into account cultural differences in communication styles (eg, how much eye contact is appropriate)

Useful questions to ask

  • How are you feeling at the moment?
  • How long have you felt like this — is it an ongoing issue?
  • Who do you feel you can go to for support?
  • Are there any work-related factors which are contributing to how you are feeling?
  • Is there anything we can do to help?

How to listen

  • Give the person your full focus and listen without interrupting 
  • Listen to their words, tone of voice and take note of their body language — they can all give you clues as to how they are feeling
  • Respect the person’s feelings, experiences and values although they may be different to yours — don’t judge or criticise because of your own beliefs and attitude
  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and demonstrate to them that you hear and understand what they are saying and feeling
  • Be genuine and show you accept them and their values by what you say and do

What to do if you’re seriously worried

If you think the person may be considering suicide, it’s important to ask them directly about this. 

You can’t put the idea in someone’s head if they are not considering it, but it can be a huge relief to someone to be asked the question and feel able to talk about it. 

  • For immediate support, call your Employee Assistance Programme, who will be able to help. The Samaritans also have a 24/7 helpline on 116 123. 
  • If you think they’re about to attempt suicide imminently, call 999 or take them to your nearest emergency department. 
  • If you think the risk of suicide is high but not imminent, encourage them to get in touch with their friends or family, their GP or another professional.

Listening to someone doesn’t mean you have to solve all their problems, but you should be supportive and encourage them to get the help they need. And don’t agree to keep the situation to yourself.

Where to find help 

When an employee lets you know that they’re not okay, you’ll want to do everything you can as an employer or manager to support them.  

If you find yourself in this situation, there are a number of places where you can find help. These include:

  • Your Employee Assistance Programme
  • Websites like Mind, the Samaritans and Mental Health at Work
  • Your own Wellbeing champions — don’t forget to speak to them about providing support

Most times when you ask someone if they are okay, you’ll get a positive answer. But if you don’t, use these tips to have a supportive conversation that could make a huge difference to your employee’s life.

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