University of Wisconsin–Madison


You’ve recognized some signs in an employee who may be in need of mental health support and want to respond. The overall goal of responding to an employee is to offer support for someone showing the warning signs and, if the person accepts, supporting them in a helpful way. However, it is important to be mindful of personal and workplace boundaries. When you respond, your goal is to offer support and resources, not to seek disclosure or discussion of their health.

How do you respond?

Your responsibility as a manager is to show compassion and manage work performance. Showing compassion doesn’t mean that the employee doesn’t have to meet performance expectations. Instead, showing compassion is about encouraging the use of resources, providing flexibility where able, and possibly temporarily adjusting expectations. There is a fine line between supporting and enabling an employee and not holding them accountable for their work responsibilities. If you are unsure how to respond or how to both show compassion and manage work performance, consider consulting with resources:

Supporting Employees

Regardless of your relationship with the employee, you can always provide empathy and resources. Supporting someone when they are going through a difficult time may help build a more positive and trusting relationship. Remember, it is not your responsibility to change someone else’s experience or ‘fix’ it for them. Your role is to offer support and resources and it is the other person’s right to accept or decline the support. Supporting others’ mental health can be difficult work and bring up a variety of emotions for you. In order to provide the best support for others, it is important that you first take care of yourself and be empathetic.

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Active Listening

Using the active listening strategies below are critical when you are having a conversation about issues in the workplace. Active listening helps build relationships and can help you not jump to solutions or try to ‘fix’ it.

  • Listen for understanding, not to respond.
  • Reflect back or summarize what you heard.
  • Use open ended questions while making clear employees should not disclose their personal health information.
  • Allow for moments of silence.
  • Conduct the conversation in a private place.
  • Remove distractions so you can focus on the conversation.
  • Consider the best time to have the conversation.
  • Remember to listen! This is about the employee, not you.

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Guidelines for Responding to an Employee

Even if you don’t have an employee presenting any of the warning signs, it is good practice to regularly remind the whole team of mental health resources available and encourage their use. You might also want to proactively remind employees of the resources available if you know there are a lot of changes and uncertainty occurring. You can also use the active listening strategies and ask how an employee is doing during your ongoing check-in meetings. This not only helps build your relationship with the employee, but it can also help you catch stressors early to offer support.

If you have noticed any of the warning signs, mentioned previously, in an employee, you will want to  initiate the conversation with them. Start the conversation by focusing on what you have observed, heard, or noticed in the employee, which could be related to their performance, behavior, or something they shared. Remember, your role is to show compassion and offer support and resources, not to be the employee’s therapist or to ‘fix’ it.

Checking in early and often is better than waiting for something to become much larger. For example, you might check in by asking, “In our last team meeting I noticed you got visibly frustrated. How are you feeling about that meeting?” or “Is there something getting in the way of you meeting your performance expectations?” or “I’ve noticed you have been crying at your desk. As a reminder there are resources available to you, like Employee Assistance and LifeMatters. I don’t need to know if you go. Please let me know if there are other ways I can support you.”

When you check in with employees you need to be open to the fact that based on what the employee shares, the conversation could go in very different directions.

  • If they don’t share anything else going on, stay focused on the performance or behavior you have noticed.
  • If they bring up a mental health stressor, remind employees that:
    • There are resources available to support them that are free.
    • That they can use the resources during work time.
    • That they don’t need to tell you that they’re using them.
  • Referring an employee to resources is a collaborative and ongoing process of determining what resources will be most useful for the employee and connecting them to those resources. Below is an example of how to protect an employee’s privacy and demonstrate active listening and compassion:
    • “Sometimes things are going on at home or in our personal life that makes it difficult to be present, meet expectations, or perform our best at work. The Employee Assistance Office (EAO) is a free and confidential resource that can help you address concerns at work or in your personal life. You can meet with them during work hours. I want you to be successful and the EAO is a great resource to help you do that. I encourage you to reach out to them.”
  • If an employee connects their work performance to a medical condition or disability, connect the employee to the Divisional Disability Representative (DDR), as it may be a possible accommodation request. Learn more about employee disability resources.
    • Be sure to talk with the DDR or local HR about performance expectations that might be temporarily adjusted while the employee is getting support before talking with the employee. It is your responsibility as the manager to make sure that these expectations are clear and realistic.
    • Below is another example of how to protect an employee’s privacy and demonstrate active listening and compassion:
      • “I’m so sorry to interrupt you, but it sounds like you’re starting to share some details about a medical issue. Because of my role as your supervisor, it is best that you direct that personal information to Human Resources or EAO if you need support or accommodations. However, we can absolutely talk about what you need from me to support your success at work.”

If the behavior or performance is prolonged and hasn’t changed, you may need to:

  • Consult your local HR  for guidance about the performance concerns.
  • Consult the Divisional Disability Representative (DDR) if the employee shared a medical condition/disability though they did not pursue any accommodations or leave.
  • Reach out to Employee Assistance for support.

Direct or Indirect Language

An employee might display distress in the workplace, directly or indirectly express concern, or display imminent danger of death or serious physical harm to themselves or others. Here are some examples of direct or indirect language.

Direct Language Indirect Language
“I’ve decided to kill myself.” “I’m tired of life, I just can’t go on.”
“I wish I were dead.” “My family would be better off without me.”
“I’m going to commit suicide.” “Who cares if I’m dead anyway.”
“I’m going to end it all.” “I won’t be around much longer.”
“If (such and such) doesn’t happen, I’ll kill myself.” “Pretty soon you won’t have to worry about me.”

When you hear indirect language or are uncertain, you should consult with available resources, such as EAO or LifeMatters. If you are advised to ask follow up questions of the employee, some ways to frame the questions include:

  • “Have you been having suicidal thoughts?”
  • “Can I ask, have you been thinking about suicide?”
  • “Are you thinking about killing yourself?”
  • “What do these thoughts look like?” “Do you have a plan?”

If you hear direct language, this is when a direct consultation is needed. Consult with available resources, including EAO, the Suicide Prevention Hotline, or local Emergency Services (9-1-1).

Hearing someone say that they intend to kill themselves will likely feel scary and overwhelming. It can make us feel like we have to do something as soon as possible! Remember to check in with yourself. Many different emotions and reactions can come up for us. It is important that you understand what you are feeling and how you are reacting, so that you can take care of yourself and continue to support your employee.

Continue to use active listening skills. In this moment, you could say something like, “I feel scared when I hear that you are going to kill yourself. Can we talk about how you can stay alive?” Your employee’s safety is now the priority and you may need to push against their boundaries in order for them to stay alive. Listen to their needs and work together to figure out what to do next and what options will be best for them. Show genuine concern and care. When supporting someone in imminent danger (they have a suicide plan or don’t seem capable of thinking rationally), it is important to consider your own safety as well.

Remember, resources are available to support you and the employee in this situation. You may say, “Can we call the Suicide Prevention Hotline together?”

Imminent Danger

An imminent danger situation is one in which there is an immediate threat to life or health. You can contact the Employee Assistance Office if the situation occurs during regular business hours or you can contact LifeMatters to immediately connect with a trained counselor. The following are additional resources to use during an imminent danger situation:

  • Dial 800-273-8255 or 9-8-8 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
  • Dial 800-262-HELP (4357) to reach the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Hotline.
  • Dial 800-950-NAMI (6264) to reach the National Alliance on Mental Health Hotline.
  • Dial 608-280-2600 to reach the Journey Mental Health Center.
  • Dial 9-1-1 for the police or contact the local Emergency Department: trained professionals will ask questions to assess if there is actually an imminent danger to someone’s life.
    • In Madison, you can ask for the Mental Health Liaison, who is a member of the police department and can arrange to transport someone to the emergency department, rather than you or a colleague driving them to the emergency department.
    • Some people with marginalized identities will feel cautious about using the police as a service. Consider all needs, concerns, or fears to develop a plan that is best for the employee. Be sure to request an officer with mental health training.

Responding to Warning Signs

As you recognize warning signs, you likely experience different emotions and thoughts, such as compassion, confusion, and figuring out how you can help. It isn’t always clear how significant the challenges are for an employee so your best tool is to continue to use active listening and engage with compassion. Many warning signs look like typical things that people experience, such as feeling exhausted or disconnecting because of how busy things are. Following up with your peers when you see warning signs like this can help you to know more about what is going on – whether it is a typical struggle, suicidal thoughts, or something else.

When we feel ourselves doubting that a peer could be thinking about suicide, we need to remind ourselves that our background – our family and community, where we grew up, and the experiences we have had – influences our understanding of mental health and suicide. This stigma teaches us to view people who are in distress negatively or with discomfort. But we don’t like to view people this way! So sometimes, we talk ourselves into believing that these warning signs are normal or happening for reasons other than suicidal ideation or mental health struggles. This leads to hesitations – things that make it harder for us to effectively offer support, even when we want to. When we find ourselves questioning the warning signs we recognize, we need to remember what motivates us to act effectively or makes it easier to act.

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