I hate to admit this, but I’m out of my depth. My boss expects me to handle my team on all levels, but two of them are so stressed I’m worried they may burn out. I haven’t told my boss because I respect their privacy and they haven’t actually told me how they feel. I can just see it. I want to help but I don’t know how.

I hear this more and more. There is an increasing trend in middle management being expected to be some kind of pseudo-psychologist and this is never a good idea. You need to leave psychology to the psychologists. But, as a responsible boss, you do need tools to help people at first and if things are bad, know who to refer them to.

Let’s take an extreme case study I was involved with recently. It is extreme, but has useful lessons for us all.

Wendy (name changed) called me in a dreadful panic. ‘I was carrying out appraisals, it was the end of the day and my last team member came into my office and sat down. She looked a bit down and I thought that was because she hadn’t been doing her job properly and she knew we had to talk about it.

But before I could say anything she started to tell me that she wanted to end her life. She was calm and went into detail about the different ways she had considered suicide. She swore me to secrecy. I knew this was wrong but I went into a panic. We don’t have an HR department and I had no one to talk to. So, I told her I would help her all I could. I sat with her during her shifts, helping her with her work, in fact I was doing her job for her. This has been going on for some weeks. But the other day I noticed that she seemed to act as if she had pulled the wool over my eyes. I feel terrible saying this, but I think she tricked me because she knew she was underperforming.

What should I do?

Wendy and I talked this through for half a day and we revealed underlying problems that could be worked on. There were two main issues. One was to help her manage this situation and the other was for her to recognise her own behaviour patterns so that this would never happen again. After all the resulting situation was untenable for her and her whole team.

The first point to make is that if anyone tells you they are considering ending their life, you are not qualified to judge if they are telling the truth or otherwise. You must give this person your full attention immediately. Talk to them, ask them if they have seen a doctor or psychologist, if not calmly suggest you think this is a good idea. Show them that you care and avoid saying things that could make them feel guilty, such as think how your family will feel, this sort of comment can make matters worse.

You must elevate this to someone more senior and focus on getting help.

If you haven’t got an HR department, I also advise contacting an external HR company, so that you follow correct procedures. With increasing mental health problems in workplace, all companies employing people should think through how these situations should be handled.

As far as working with Wendy about how she handled the situation, this is for next week’s Your Brain is Boss bulletin. If you’re not yet recieveing this fortnightly bulletin of neuroscience and business psychology tips and insights to enable you to increase productivity (whilst reducing stress), avoid conflict and improve communication – sign up below.