A survey by Mensura and Certimed shows that 7 out of 10 employees feel comfortable initiating a conversation with their supervisor or a confidential advisor at work. Quite a positive figure in itself, but not all topics are equally open for discussion. Of this 70%, the large majority indicates that they could readily discuss work-related topics with their employer. However, this openness of conversation is lower when it comes to topics related to family life (54%), non-medical reasons for absence (50%), or mental health (47%). Stress and workload are not easy to talk about in every workplace either: no less than 4 out of 10 Belgians surveyed say they cannot talk about these topics with their employer.

Working on a relationship of trust

Nevertheless, it is important that employers build up a relationship of trust with employees, where all topics can be discussed. Bart Teuwen, absence expert at Certimed and Mensura: “Both employers and employees often feel that problems related to family or mental health belong to their private lives and should not be discussed in the workplace. However, these are the issues that are often at the heart of - long-term - absence from work. As such, it is important that organisations are committed to building a relationship of trust between employers and employees, where any topic is open for discussion.”

“After all, the supervisor can be a first step towards specific solutions. As a listening ear or as a party who can make the circumstances less taxing by way of temporary adjustments. It’s how supervisors can help prevent employees from needing time off work due to psychosocial or private problems, or offer better support if this does happen. It is important that the conversation doesn’t just take place when there are issues, but that you - as the supervisor - regularly check in with your team members and show genuine interest in their well-being. This is how you build a relationship in which both parties take each other into account,” Bart Teuwen adds.

First aid for mental health problems

Many supervisors struggle with a conversation barrier when it comes to talking to employees about more sensitive, personal topics such as mental health.

Bart Teuwen: “Just because you are in a management position, doesn’t mean you are brave or able enough to raise such sensitive topics. That’s why it is useful to offer supervisors space and support to grow these skills. For example, through training on how to approach an absenteeism interview, or a course in ‘first aid for mental health problems’, where they learn to recognise psychosocial warning bells and interviewing techniques. The employer doesn’t need to take on the role of psychologist, but they do need to be a smoke detector that recognises signals and is able to refer employees to a care provider in time.”

Learning to talk about absenteeism differently

An open discussion between employer and employee also proves rather difficult in practice when it comes to reasons for absence. 46% of employees would prefer their supervisor not to ask about the reason for absence, and a third does not offer the real reason for absence if the truth is family circumstances or the atmosphere at work.

Bart Teuwen: “Employees are clearly protective of their privacy in this regard, and they certainly have a right to be. But this should not be an excuse for employers to avoid a conversation with their employee when they need time off work. It is important to show you’re interested in the well-being of your employee, to discuss together whether the employee would be able and prepared to do different work or work differently, and to see how the employee could be supported in this. This is perfectly possible without discussing the reasons for the absence.”