Let There Be Silence: Listening and providing space to support those who are struggling

When Hayley Peek was suffering from severe panic attacks and became very ill at work, she faced the daunting task of talking to her manager about it. They went out for lunch, and she worked up the courage to tell him she was struggling. He listened. He validated her feelings. He didn’t make her feel stressed. He told her that he knew something was going on, but he wanted to give her the space to come to him. He had a sick child, and she loathed burdening him with this. However, despite this, he was there for her, and she felt enormous gratitude for his kindness and support.

Unfortunately, when the matter escalated to the head of the company, things fell apart. That leader noticeably led the conversation waiting for her to reveal what she had spoken to her manager about. And when Peek finally opened up, the leader leveled her by saying, “I need you to get your S*@* together!” She left that job shortly after.

Peek, a mental health consultant and speaker, shared this story at the Conference Board of Canada’s Mental Health Gap Conference in April. She talked about what a blow that first experience was and how important it is for employers to understand the constant battle that those with anxiety and depression face.

In the case of her first employer, Peek’s manager knew exactly how important silence and space can be in helping someone in distress. However, the abusive approach of the head of the company had the opposite effect—it silenced Peek.

People first

Later in her career, she again had to talk to her manager about her anxiety and depression. Thankfully, again, her manager was amazing. She met Peek with compassion and vulnerability. They talked about accommodation. However, accommodation in this workplace was designed around policies and procedures and not around individuals and unique circumstances. Their attempt to find a suitable solution for her involved endless meetings over a seven-week period, and they didn’t set expectations for the meetings, so Peek’s anxiety became worse. Ultimately, the doctor working for the organization decided she “wasn’t sick enough.”

This is the reality in many workplaces. Some people get it, and they are skillful at supporting direct reports and colleagues. Others are still fumbling around while decent, capable employees fall through the cracks.

Craig Kramer, Mental Health Ambassador and Chair, Global Campaign on Mental Health, Johnson & Johnson, who opened the Conference, likened our current state to the early days of cancer when few understood what it was or how to help others who were ill.

Peek says, “When people come forward, they don’t want you to fix them. There is trust. You’ve created safety.” She explained the role of managers is to support as best as possible and reinforced that it doesn’t have to be complicated. “It can be a simple as validating and saying thank you for sharing.”

She reminded the audience that it is what you do with your judgement that matters and shared the following tips for those critical moments:

  • Hold space for the other person.
  • Don’t fill the silence.
  • Wait until the person is finished and simply ask, “how can I support you?”
  • Use collaborative language.
  • Remember, the person knows you are not a therapist. They just need to know you’re in their corner.
  • Hear, honour, recognize, and validate.
  • Let them know you will walk with them through the process.
  • Set expectations.
  • Reduce fear.

Awareness of personal tone and style and the importance of listening are recurring themes in posts featured on this site. In the post “Does Your Leadership Tone Promote Mental Health?” Dr. Howatt and Louise Bradley note that “Psychologically safe leaders understand that their behaviours can set a positive tone that supports and promotes mental health. They also realize that they are not perfect, and there may be times when their actions and reactions are not optimal.”

Peek agrees. She emphasized that leaders shouldn’t expect to be the “be-all and end-all for employees.” She also acknowledged that some people just aren’t equipped for these conversations, and training isn’t always the answer.

As noted in “Does Your Leadership Tone Promote Mental Health,” Dr. Howatt and Louise Bradley believe projecting a positive influence is not about perfection; it is about intention. With the right tools and practice, leaders can develop this muscle, and workplaces can become more adept at listening, supporting, and providing space to those who want to work and contribute but are struggling.

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