Written by Higson

How to recognise signs of stress and have conversations about mental health

13th June, 2023   •  

We often hear how important it is to prioritise our well-being and mental health to be healthier, happier and more productive. Yet, many of us tend to avoid conversations around it because we are afraid of saying the wrong thing or not knowing what to say. 

What are we talking about when we say mental health?

Mental health and well-being mean different things to different people. At a high level, mental health includes emotional, psychological and social well-being. It affects how a person thinks, feels and acts.

It also impacts how well they are able to cope with change and stress, and how they build relationships with others.

Stress, in particular, is a cause of mental health problems, causing people to feel exhausted, irritable, have problems concentrating and feel like they don’t have control. Stress is more than a mental state of being, and manifests itself in many different ways. In fact, 74% of us feel so stressed that they have been overwhelmed and unable to cope. This is why it is critical to spot early signs of stress in ourselves, our team and others around us.

What are some early signs of stress?

Stress looks and feels different for everyone. The main thing to watch out for is a change in behaviour. Some behaviours to be on the lookout for in ourselves and others:

  1. Lower energy levels than usual and increased tiredness
  2. Elevated anxiety- constantly feeling on edge, being unable to relax and feeling restless
  3. Increased dizziness, episodes of fainting and/or unable to sleep
  4. Fluctuating moods and a noticeable change in behaviour
  5. Reduced productivity and efficiency, work performance is not what it usually is 
  6. Social withdrawal/Isolation- showing lower interest in hobbies and social interactions like meeting people or even responding to calls and messages; low motivation to do things

Everyone has their own “stress signature”, which is how they respond to stress. Understanding your own stress signatures as well as friends’ or your team’s stress signatures can help you identify when they are at risk of burnout. For example, if someone is consistently missing deadlines when they usually meet every deadline, then this could be a sign that they are overwhelmed and may need extra support.

What can we do if we spot signs of stress in others?

The first and most important step is to have an open, honest and caring conversation with the individual. 

I can vouch for the importance of these conversations from my personal experience. Even if the people I had these conversations with didn’t always have the “perfect” response, they were willing to listen and show empathy. The risk is that we are often put off by having these conversations as we are so worried about saying the right thing, or not knowing what to say. 

To help you navigate these conversations with friends or at work, here are 4 steps you can follow: 


  1. Prepare: Think about where and when you want to have this conversation. Walking and talking can be very effective. People feel less exposed and are more likely to open up if they are walking alongside rather than sitting opposite looking them in the eye. Similarly, with team members, you can take them out of the office environment to get them more comfortable sharing. It can also be useful to prepare what you’re going to say, how you are going to start the conversation and what questions you would want to ask.
  2. Ask open questions: Ask questions that allow the individual to open up and share more with you.
    Here are a few ideas to help open the conversation:
  •  How are you, really?

Often, when we ask this question, we get a “Good, thanks!” in response. What we can do to uncover more, is ask, “How are you?”, twice. Ask them “How are you doing”, and then ask them “How are you, really?” to get them to open up and share more. It is because as humans, we almost have to give permission to the other person to share more.


  • I have noticed X and want to check that you are okay?

By saying “I noticed…”, you show that you care, and provide some context for them to expand on. For example, “I noticed you were quiet and a bit withdrawn in the team meeting yesterday, is everything okay?

When having this conversation, avoid making assumptions. For example, avoid saying “You are clearly struggling” or “You are obviously very stressed at the moment”, as this could cause the other person to be defensive, rather than open up. 


  1. Actively listen: Once you have asked, it is also important to really listen to what they share. To do this effectively, here are a few behaviours to avoid and aim for:


  • Interrupting, and give them the space and time to share
  • Saying words like “no”, “but” or “however”: these are words with negative connotations and could sound like you are challenging them 
  • Being distracted by your phone, notifications, or your monitor if you’re at work. When you are fully present and engaged, it shows that you value what they have to say, and it encourages them to open up with us. 
  • Jumping straight to problem-solving mode, because before discussing any solution its important to really listen to what they have to share

Instead, aim to do this:

  • Listen more than you talk. The ratio to aim for is 70% listen and 30% talk and give them the space to share whatever they have on their mind
  • Leave silence and pauses: it creates space for them  to share 
  • Ask expanding questions, like “And what else?” to get them to share more 
  • After they have shared, summarise back what they shared to ensure we understood correctly. It also shows that you were actively listening to them.
  1. Respond with empathy: What often happens when someone shares something with us is that we want to help by providing solutions or advice. The mistake we often make is jumping to solution mode too quickly and not making them feel truly understood. Instead, we want to respond with empathy and give them space to share.

Here are some quick tips to show empathy:

  •  Take a step back and avoid jumping to solution mode straight away. Actively listen, give them the space and time to share
  • Ask questions to understand their situation such as:
    – “Is there anything I can do to help?”
    – “What would you like to happen, and how?”
    – “What support do you think might help right now?”
    – If having this conversation at work, “How is work impacting how you feel?”
  • Summarise back what they have shared to show you have heard them
  • If relevant, discuss a solution together. Empower them to share ideas of what they think could help. If you’re having this conversation at work, discuss what reasonable adjustments you can offer which might help them -flexible hours, reviewing tasks on their plate, shifting deadlines, offering working from home options, or offering more help, support and resources.

Sometimes, there will be no concrete solutions to what they are sharing. The main thing to do is to give them the space and the time to share to create an atmosphere of trust and openness.


Using the 4 steps, you can have open, honest conversations about stress and mental health at work and in your personal relationships.

If you are a leader, one of the most impactful things you can do is to make space to discuss the well-being of your team and ensure they feel heard and safe to share. Read our blog on the healthy mind platter, which is a brilliant tool to start conversations about well-being in one-to-ones or team meetings. 

Key takeaway: By fostering open dialogue about stress and mental health, we can create a more compassionate environment for everyone. It also helps normalise the idea that mental health struggles are part of the human experience, which will encourage individuals around you to seek help without fear of judgement. Through open conversations, individuals will feel empowered to recognise signs of stress in themselves and take action to support themself.

If this is something you would like to know more about, get in touch to see how we
could help you make these conversations a part of your culture.