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What to do when they're not ok

|  —  14/09/23

Coaching conversations are powerful. Sometimes showing you care and creating space for someone to share can expose challenges you didn’t know existed. You may discover someone on your team is not coping with the change at all. Knowing what to do if this happens can save a life.

“But Leah, this is exactly why I avoid getting personal with my people! I don’t want to ask how they’re travelling because I’m totally out of my depth if they say they are struggling. I’d prefer to keep the conversation to work and their tasks and leave the personal stuff to the professionals.”

I have heard a version of this response from many leaders over the years and I’ve talked them through it. Because here’s the reality: you have a responsibility to care for your people as their leader, particularly when they are navigating difficult change at work.

You don’t have to be a counsellor or psychologist, you don’t have to be a mental health expert, but you do need to care, and with some basic strategies for how to respond you will be able to support your people to get the help they need from the right professionals.

Still not convinced? Let me put it this way, if someone had a heart attack in front of you at work, would you just walk away without doing anything because you’re not a doctor? Would that be an acceptable response?

No, of course not. The same goes for if one of your staff is suffering emotionally or mentally. You don’t walk away. You provide first aid. And that’s what this is about – providing FIRST aid. Not all the aid. Just the initial emergency response.

I am a huge advocate of mental health first aid training and encourage leaders to do it in some form with a reputable provider. Having the skills to respond effectively when someone is not ok is essential.

Remember, you don’t have to “fix” them or solve all the problems for them. You just need to be there.

As organisational psychologist and bestselling author Adam Grant wrote on social media: “In hard times, people don’t want to be told to look on the bright side. They want to know you’re on their side. Even if you can’t help them feel better, you can always help them feel seen. The best way to support others is not to cheer them up. It’s to show up.”

So how can you respond if a member of your team discloses that they are not ok? Below is a summary of the ALGEE mental health first aid action plan taught by Mental Health First Aid Australia. As you can see, it’s simple and doesn’t require you to be anything more than human:

Approach the person, assess and assist with any crisis

Listen and communicate non-judgementally

Give support and information

Encourage the person to get appropriate professional help

Encourage other supports

Here are some further suggestions:

  • Educate yourself on the resources and agencies available to support someone who is struggling. This may include your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP); local general practitioners, psychologists and mental health services; and national organisations such as Beyond Blue, Lifeline, Mindfull Aus and more.
  • Have the details of these agencies on hand before you start a coaching conversation so you can provide the information to a staff member during the meeting if required.
  • Open in a non-confrontational way using questions or statements such as:

 “I’ve noticed…What’s up?”

“How are you travelling, really?”

“This is a really challenging time and it’s really normal for it to be having an impact on us. I wanted to check in, are you ok?”

  • Encourage them to seek assistance and normalise it for them. Be vulnerable yourself and consider sharing if you’ve used these services before.
  • Offer to help them make an appointment if they’re open to it.
  • Make sure you understand your organisation’s policy in regard to stress or mental health leave and provide this information if appropriate.
  • Schedule time to follow up with the person and stick to it.
  • Make sure you informally check in and follow up too.

If the person is in crisis and discloses that they really are not ok and you are concerned they may be considering harming themselves, do not leave them alone. Call a mental health triage service for advice and link them in with professional help.

I’m very aware this is a heavy topic but it’s important to address it in this book, even if briefly. If you haven’t done mental health first aid training I highly recommend you put it up near the top of your to-do list. There are short three-hour sessions and longer two-day intensive programs available through a range of providers Australia wide.

In addition, here are some other helpful resources:

  • Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467 (telephone counselling for people who are suicidal, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week)
  • Lifeline: 13 11 14 (24 hour-a-day crisis support and suicide prevention)

Mental health crisis numbers:

  • ACT: Mental health triage service 1800 629 354
  • NSW: Access Mental Health Line 1800 011 511
  • NT: Northern Territory mental health services 1800 682 288
  • QLD: 1300 MH CALL triage service 1300 642 255
  • SA: Mental Health Triage Service 13 14 65
  • TAS: Access Mental Health 1800 332 388
  • VIC: SuicideLine Victoria 1300 651 251
  • WA: Mental Health Emergency Response Line 1800 676 822
  • Beyond Blue:


  1. Book into a mental health first aid course.
  2. Gather the contact details of key people and services who can support your staff, including:
  • EAP (Employee Assistance Program).
  • Career counsellor.
  • Medical clinic.
  • Suicide prevention and mental health service providers.

*This article is an excerpt from Leah Mether's book 'Steer Through the Storm: How to Communicate and Lead Courageously Through Change'. It was reviewed and approved by a mental health expert.

Leah Mether is a communication and soft skills trainer obsessed with making the people part of leadership and work life easier.

With more than 15 years’ experience working with thousands of clients, and an acclaimed book to her name, Leah knows what it takes to communicate under pressure. Like you, she knows the challenge of conflict, personality clashes, and difficult conversations.

Leah is renowned for her practical, engaging, straight-shooting style. Utilising her Five Cs® model of communication, she helps leaders and teams shift from knowing to doing, and radically improve their effectiveness.

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