Mental health and work: How to identify and support staff who are struggling

Morgan McKinley 13.05.2019

Knowing how to deal with employees who are experiencing mental health issues is an important aspect of management in any organisation. Mental health and work no longer need to be separate elements of life.

The pressures of working life can take their toll

Mental health is relative to how we, as individuals, think, feel and behave. Common mental health problems include anxiety and depression; both are often caused by difficult life events as well as work-related stress and issues. Whilst managers are used to supporting those with physical ailments or disabilities, they are often ill-equipped to deal with mental issues.

Any pre-existing issues that employees may be struggling with can be intensified in the workplace, where the pressure to succeed and effectively communicate is constant. Therefore, it is important that organisations and managers know what to look out for and have policies in place to support those team members who are working with a mental illness.

How to spot common mental health problems at work

Identifying staff members who are experiencing mental ill health as early as possible will help prevent the issues being heightened when that individual is at work. Managers and colleagues should never make assumptions, but some telltale signs of someone who is struggling with their mental health at work include:

  • Changes in mood, behaviour or ways they are interacting with others
  • Drop off in standard of work or overall focus
  • Appearing tired, anxious or withdrawn and lack of interest in tasks they previously enjoyed
  • Drastic change in diet or increased smoking and drinking
  • Consistent late arrival or increase in sickness absence

Obviously not every individual will display all, or any, of these signs - a lot of people are struggling but put on a brave face to carry on with their daily lives. The best thing to do is simply ask team members ‘how they are coping’ on a regular basis. Hopefully this will instill a level of trust that will make staff comfortable and allow them to open up more about how they are truly feeling.

How to improve mental health at work

Talking to an employee who is working with mental illness

It is easy to say that managers should regularly ask about their team members’ wellbeing, but in practice, approaching someone about their mental health at work can seem daunting and the easy option is to avoid the topic entirely. But as mentioned earlier, the longer it’s left, the worse the issues will become.

At the earliest indication that something is wrong, managers should arrange a private catch up; keep it casual and positive so the individual doesn’t panic or feel intimidated as that will make them less likely to open up.



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In contrast, if an employee actively approaches management wanting to confidentially discuss their mental health, managers should already be prepared to talk about any issues and ready to try and identify what the causes might be. In this instance, it’s important to remain professional, calm, patient and supportive. This is just one reason why it is important for organisations to have a mental health policy and dedicated support initiatives in place.

What about those who don’t feel able to discuss their issues?

It is inevitable that there will be certain people who may not want to talk about their struggles. If this is the case, they should not be rushed or pressured into discussing their mental health - managers should monitor them and reinforce that they have a willing set of ears whenever that individual is ready to talk.

If matters worsen, advice or guidance from HR or external resources may be necessary.

Supporting staff who are working with mental illnesses

For those employees who are able to open up about their mental health problems at work, it is important for the organisation to consider making ‘reasonable adjustments’ that will allow the individual to carry on with their role without being at a disadvantage.

Note: Mental health discrimination at work can be an offence under the 2010 Equality Act.

Regardless of whether the issues staff may be encountering are classified as recognised mental health illnesses or not, it makes sense to proactively make changes that will help staff attend work, focus properly and reduce the pressure of their role. Simple adjustments such as allowing more breaks or sitting with them regularly to help prioritise their workload can make all the difference. The most important thing to remember is that this should be confidential, so keeping any changes as low key as possible should always be considered.

If it gets to the point where any individual needs to miss days at work because of their mental health, managers should still offer support to their staff when they are away from the workplace. Some steps to take include:

  • Agree how regular contact will be maintained
  • Remain positive, professional and supportive
  • Discuss what information colleagues should be made aware of
  • Encourage a phased return to allow gradual reappearance in the office

Useful links to support managers dealing with mental health and work

  • Business in the Community - Provides toolkits on Mental Health to help employers support employees.
  • Mindful Employer - UK-wide, NHS initiative aimed at increasing awareness of mental health at work and providing support for recruitment and retention of staff.
  • Remploy - Free and confidential Workplace Mental Health Support Service for anyone absent from work or finding work difficult that aims to help people remain in, or return to, their role.
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