How to spot when an employee might have a mental health issue

Mental health is an extremely personal thing. More often than not, it’s something most people like to keep to themselves if they are suffering – and this is especially true in the more formal world of work

This is an edited version of an article which appeared on Business Advice.

People don’t like to talk about their mental health at work, for various reasons; this can be due to the fear that they could be seen as less ‘resilient’ than other colleagues, and less able to handle work stress or challenging situations. Added to this is the unfair stigma which still exists in relation to opening up about mental health generally.

This is why candidates often keep mental health issues under wraps during interviews and on-boarding processes; if this happens, things can get complicated, and harder to handle, if an employee finds their mental health issues flaring up at work.

Hiding their struggles only increases a sense of stress and unease and, before long, things can get too much, leading to prolonged and unexplained absences from work – or even leaving the post altogether.

Although the suffering employee forms part of a wider team, the ultimate goal is to reintegrate the person when they are feeling better, and with the right support.

Employers can and should want to prevent this from happening in the first place. They need to create an open and tolerant culture in relation to mental health in the workplace by being ‘clued-up’ on how to spot when an employee is suffering, so that they can be ready to support them.

How to spot someone who’s suffering

If you’re concerned about the mental health of an employee pay close, yet subtle, attention to how they’re behaving at work. We’re not talking about their general work demeanour; it’s more about assessing their emotions – are they becoming easily stressed, hyper and nervous – or overly emotional?

Or are they having memory lapses or appearing disoriented and confused? This is a serious and important indicator of someone who’s experiencing psychological trauma or intense stress.

Crying in the office is also a big one here, and is something that should never be ignored; whether it’s due to personal issues at home, or actual workplace stress, as soon as the tears begin, remove that employee from the office environment and take them somewhere private to talk.

You need to take tears seriously.

Personality change is another one to watch out for. Have they gone from being happy and calm to angry or irritable? The root of this could be that they are:

1. a) battling with personal mental health issues such as anxiety or depression;

2. b) becoming dissatisfied with their role, or the culture at work, both of which can lead to a lack of stimulation and increased irritability.

A lot of mental health issues can manifest themselves in physical symptoms and it’s important, if you are concerned about an individual’s mental health, that you step in and support them before something more serious happens.

While it’s tempting to want to discipline employees who keep taking time off work, be conciliatory at first in order to uncover what’s really going on; it could be they are having mental health issues but are fearful of appearing ‘weak’ by admitting it.

How to step in and support

The first thing to do is to acknowledge your role as a manager of people; part of that role is to support staff socially and emotionally. You also might want to think about changing your management style for different employees and their varying personalities and sensitivities.

Because humans are not machines, sometimes employees get sick, and sometimes they can feel mentally overwhelmed. To ensure the smooth running of a team, despite the limitations of human talent, it’s important that the right considerations are made to make sure your people can work to the best of their ability – in spite of any inevitable issues they might experience throughout their working lives.

Be flexible, and see each person as an individual. You have to be approachable to your staff because, if they ‘suffer in silence’, they could, ultimately, make the drastic decision to leave if they don’t feel supported in their struggles.

Ensure you put regular one-to-one catch-ups in the diary; consider holding these outside the office environment sometimes, such as in a nearby cafe, to help the employee feel more comfortable about opening up.

Final thoughts

Although prolonged physical absences can be irritating to a manager, remember that the point of hiring people is so that they will produce great work that drives your business forward.

With this in mind, remember that new technologies mean work can almost be done anywhere. So, if a suffering but vital employee needs to work from home for a while, let them do it. It’s certainly preferable to forcing them to stay in the office and leaving them burned out, or quitting, as a result.

Individual care will benefit the entire team because the suffering employee is part of that wider team. The ultimate goal is to reintegrate the person when they are feeling better, and to provide the right support.

This kind of consideration from a manager is great for team building as it sends other employees the reassuring message that, if they should ever experience mental health issues, or some kind of personal adversity, they will receive the same kind of support and care.

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