Proactive and supportive 121 discussions

The COVID-19 world of work and lockdown is stressful. As the pandemic continues well into 2021, helping identify and support employees with mental health issues is vital. A critical aspect of providing early support for employees is through having proactive and supportive 121 discussions, whether remotely or face to face.

We organised a webinar this month for HR leaders within the food and drinks sector and invited John Grant from Weightman Associates to share his expertise and experiences on this important topic.

Our Principal Consultant, Lisa Bird, brought together HR leaders within the Food and Drink sector as part of our online thought leadership programme.  Our aim is to help leaders build their networks and take time out from their busy schedules to learn from others and share their thoughts that will help address potential aspects relating to their work and teams.

Here we address:

1. The reasons why regular 121s are so important.

2. Spotting the early warning signs of declining mental health and ways to proactively intervene.

3. How to hold a supportive discussion with an employee experiencing a mental health issue.

4. The purpose and desired outcome of a proactive and supportive 121 conversation.

1. The reasons why regular 121s are so important.

COVID-19 has impacted everyone in many different ways; The ongoing situation has affected the mental health and wellbeing of many people and is likely to continue to do so as we move through the pandemic into 2021.

The ways that managers behave and make small changes to their management approach can significantly limit and address employees’ mental wellbeing.

Research from Toronto University (SARS Control and Psychological Effects of Quarantine, Toronto, Canada 2004 Jul; 10(7): 1206–1212) after the 2003 SARS pandemic and lockdown concluded that better communication support will result in fewer instances of mental health illness such as stress, anxiety, depression and even PTSD.

The Final Third Syndrome

Scientists have researched how people cope with isolation over extended periods of time by monitoring people based in two particularly isolated locations: on a nuclear submarine and at an Antarctic outpost. They observed the following stages emerge as individuals underwent their assignments:

  • React and adjust: during the first third of their fixed period of isolation within their restricted environments, people settled into the routines and this stage presented the lowest mental health risk.
  • Adapt and cope: the second third of their time on assignment involved people adjusting their behaviours and ways of working to their new way of life in isolation. This stage presented only slight aspects of people struggling mentally with the situation.
  • When is it going to end? The final third presented the highest risk to mental health. The months of isolation begin to take their toll as people increasingly count down their remaining days and look forward to being freed from the enforced isolation. If this end date was extended, instances where people’s mental health suffered rose significantly. We are in this stage right now in the UK.

2. Spotting the early warning signs of declining mental health and ways to proactively intervene.

The decline in a person’s wellbeing can be gradual or sudden. So what are the signs that someone may be experiencing a difficultly with their mental health?

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s extensive research on the impact of bereavement on human beings observed distinct states with associated behaviours arising from a profound sense of loss. Her research can be easily applied to the pandemic where everyone is experiencing different forms of loss ie. loss of liberty, health, life, etc. People undergo a range of emotions over individually bound timeframes. The initial shock caused by the new situation can move onto emotions of denial, frustration, depression and stages of recovery.

People experiencing mental health issues will sometimes put on a brave face during these earlier stages. But doing so consumes an enormous amount of energy which is not healthy. Fear creates anger and frustration which can build across society, not simply within an individual. This can compound people’s feelings of helplessness and lack of control which, in some cases, the stress declines further into depression.

People who initially put on a brave face may run out of energy and crash!

Managers need to carefully observe people in their teams looking for changes in behaviour to assess how they are coping.  Regular 121s provide the safe space to enable this and help provide a better outcome for individuals.  The experiment stage is critical as managers can use empathy to recognise difficulties and encourage the other person to move forward positively.

Decline in mental health has no set speed so spotting the common signs is important in order to adopt proactive strategies to address them. Indicators include:

  • Emails sent outside of an agreed working pattern
  • Less or more informal contact with you 
  • Being quieter than usual
  • Losing temper easily
  • Catastrophising things
  • Overly happy / artificially happy
  • Forgetting things
  • Making more mistakes than usual
  • Dip in performance or increase in performance
  • Not contributing to team meetings
  • Only focusing on negatives
  • Weight gain / weight loss
  • Smoking more / drinking more
  • Personal Hygiene / Appearance

This why organisations need to encourage managers to have regular 121s and team ‘huddles’ – quick catch-ups where attendees are succinct which maintains momentum.

Holding virtual meetings can be impersonal. Especially when those attending are looking at their colleagues on screen whilst talking. This results in their colleagues seeing the person looking downwards at no-one whilst talking.

Instead, look at the camera lens when talking. Stick a smiley face next to it, if you like, to remind yourself.  This will personalise the experience because audience sees you appear to look directly at them individually.

Think about the best time of week to do hold different types of virtual meetings.  Fridays may be better than Monday mornings for some. But timing may be dictated by having to fit around part time workers because these huddles must be inclusive.

Virtual meeting don’t just have to be work related – in the same ways that informal interactions with colleagues within the working premises weren’t always work related. So, change meeting types online.  Consider organising virtual exercise sessions together. This healthy approach makes interactions fun, energising and competitive. If you organise it as a competition you can also get wider colleagues attending at spectators to watch as the competition develops. This energises those taking part and as well as those watching.

3. How to hold a supportive discussion with an employee experiencing a mental health issue.

The questions you ask someone will expand or limit your opportunities to identify if someone is struggling mentally. “I’m fine” is a standard response from being asked: “How are you doing?” This question isn’t helping you or the person you are asking.  Instead consider asking these:

  • How was your weekend?
  • How are your family and friends doing?
  • How are you finding the new ways of working / procedures?
  • How is your morning routine going now that you don’t have to physically go into work?
  • What are you planning to do to stay connected with the rest of the team and other colleagues at work?
  • What’s been happening since we last spoke?

These questions are asking about how people ‘behave.’ Assess people’s energy expended in their answers and in what they are describing.

“What’s been happening since we last spoke?” is a clever question because it will pick up on what’s foremost in their mind.

If an employee says they are “fine,” but you suspect otherwise, then don’t ignore the signs.

  • Acknowledge what they say
  • Never dispute what they say or argue
  • Ask them a second time if they are ok
  • State the reason why you are asking
  • Emphasise your role is to support if there is an issue or concern

Encouraging disclosure

Once you spot the signs, you need to try to get the employee to engage positively with you and to open up. If someone repeats that they are fine and you suspect they are masking their wellbeing, then these sentences below, which include slight pauses to allow the employee to interact, may help:

Conversations must be natural and not scripted, so try to learn the main points in the guidance above. The closing point offers support from people elsewhere because it’s important to offer alternative, qualified people for the employee to engage with. Ask:

  • “What do you know about the employee assistance programme?”
  • “Would you like me to give you the information for you to contact them?”

This gives the employee control and allows them to proceed with the people who are trained and ready to advise in the most appropriate and correct ways.

What if the employee asks you if they can share something with you “off the record?”

If someone wants to ask about something off the record, never say “Yes.”

You don’t know what they are going to say so you cannot commit to something that you may have to break that trust and have to involve others at a later date. Consider saying:


People’s biggest concerns regarding mental health issues are often about not wanting their friends/colleagues to find out. This is why it’s important to state that conversation will be treated confidentially and with respect.

Empathy is key to encouraging people to re-engage

During lockdown, it’s more important than ever before and encourage people to re-engage. This will help pivot them from the difficulty they are feeling to the future solutions. But should you do this by providing sympathy or empathy?

Sympathy involves joining people in their tragedy.  Empathy involves remaining detached from the way they feel. 

It always helps if you first identify and acknowledge where people are placed on the Kubler-Ross curve mentioned above. Then you can help them move forward positively by suggesting: 

  • “I recognise this may be difficult for you, and that is why it is important that we can have a chat about how we can support you going forward.”
  • “I appreciate you are concerned about the new work procedure, and that is why we have booked out this time with you so I can listen to your concerns and show you the measures we have in place to keep you and everyone else safe.”
  • “I recognise that you don’t feel ready to return to the office, and that is why I would like to explore some different options that will help you get back into the swing of things safely.”

And remember that if they have contacted no one else then YOU are their most important person that they are confiding in.

4. The purpose and desired outcome of a proactive and supportive 121 conversation.

The purpose of a 121 discussion is:

  • To check-in on the employee’s health and wellbeing
  • To ensure the employee is valued
  • To discuss and agree priorities
  • To update on operational matters
  • To review and manage performance
  • To identify any support requirements
  • To fulfil your legal duty of care
  • To provide employee with a safe space to disclose
  • To build and maintain a trusting relationship

Encourage people to jointly prepare for a discussion about what’s going on at home and work. Check in on them regarding how their preparation is coming along prior to the meeting.

  • Jointly prepare for the discussion
  • Agree a time and location
  • Enquire about their wellbeing
  • Explore lockdown’s impact
  • Ask about home / family / friends
  • Be transparent about uncertainty
  • Seek feedback on Covid-19 secure measures
  • Explore any concerns and involve them in problem solving
  • Review objectives, performance and development
  • Discuss and agree any support (work and wellbeing)
  • Thank them for their work
  • Record and share key points of the discussion

Our thanks go to John Grant at Weightman Associates for sharing his insights with us during our webinar.


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