Spotting the signs an employee is struggling with their mental health

colleagues discussing health around a table - Howden EB

Creating a positive supportive work culture

Even before the pandemic began, mental ill health was one of the most common causes of work related ill-health. Mental illnesses are defined as conditions that impact on an individual’s mood, their thinking, feelings and behaviour. This can affect every day functioning and can impact in both personal and work life. Everyone has mental health with one in four people* likely to have a mental health problem at some point in any given year, the most common mental health issues being anxiety and depression. 

The cause of a mental health problem can be related to a difficult life event such as a relationship issue or bereavement, a family history of mental health problems or a medical condition. In some cases there is no obvious cause at all. Work related issues can also cause mental health problems and work can sometimes aggravate pre-existing conditions and make symptoms worse. 

Stress and mental health problems can go hand in hand and it is key for businesses to understand how work related stress and mental health problems relate to each other. Work related stress can be a reaction to events or experiences in work or home life which can lead to physical health problems without the presence of any mental health problem. Often, work related stress can make an existing mental health problem worse and more difficult to control. Employees can experience mental health problems and stress independently and not everyone who has a mental health problem will experience stress.

Employers play a role in helping to manage and prevent stress at work. By taking action to tackle stress by reducing or removing the causes of stress can stop employees becoming physically or mentally ill and can help to protect those with a pre-existing condition. For those with mental health issues, regardless of the cause, employers have a legal responsibility to help their employees and make any adjustments necessary to reduce or eliminate the impact on the employee’s health as far as reasonably practical. 

As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, the wellbeing of employees, both physically and mentally, continues to remain fragile with 68%** of SME business leaders reporting an increase in mental health issues since the onset of the pandemic, 16 months ago. The continued pressure on SME businesses is likely to further worsen the mental health of SME employees with changeable working environments, limited support systems and higher working demands with a reduced workforce. In a recent study by Breathe which looked at SMEs and the different approaches to mental health in the workplace, it found that the majority of SME businesses (65%) had introduced additional mental health support measures compared to 25% of businesses that had not.

Knowing how to recognise if an employee is struggling and feeling able to support them is key to early prevention of a mental health problem that could quickly escalate. So, what are the most common signs that an employee may be struggling? We have identified a non-exhaustive list below to help you understand what you should look for. A change in behaviour that is uncharacteristic to that employee. You may notice an employee or a colleague not seeming their usual self. They might start missing project deadlines, acting more quietly or aggressively or turning up late.

But other signs may include:

  1. A change in appearance such as dressing inappropriately or appearing more unkempt than usual.
  2. Changes to their usual eating patterns such as not eating lunch or around other people. 
  3. A change in their sleeping patterns which they may share with you. Problems with sleep can be an early warning sign of a mental health issue.
  4. A lack of engagement, difficulty concentrating and a general withdrawal from work tasks and work colleagues may indicate that an employee is struggling with their mental health.  A lack of interest in day-to-day activities that were previously enjoyed or an employee who isolates themselves could be signs of an employee experiencing low mood. 
  5. A decrease in productivity can be a result of employees who are experiencing poor mental health as they find it difficult to make decisions or complete tasks.   
  6. An increase in absence from work especially when taking regular, short-term absences could be a sign that an employee is experiencing poor mental health.
  7. Changes in work patterns such as arriving late, leaving early, working long hours and taking more absences can be an indication that an employee is having difficulty in managing their time and may be experiencing poor mental health. 
  8. Substance use/misuse can sometimes occur when an employee looks to self-medicate for their mental health problems.  This may be an indicator that an employee is urgently in need of help as they may have been experiencing issues for a longer period and may be struggling to recognise that medical attention is needed.

Spotting the signs of an employee who may be struggling with their mental health is important but businesses looking to support employees in this area should also consider other steps to help reduce the negative impact of poor mental health at work and to create a positive supportive work culture and environment. 

We have identified 10 steps below:

  1. Take steps to reduce the stigma around mental health problems at an organisational level. Reviewing your policies around wellbeing, ensuring these are in place and are regularly updated is essential to ensuring your employees feel safe and supported. The more open the culture is around talking about mental health issues the safer and more willing employers are to share and seek help. 
  2. Involve your employees in building a positive culture for wellbeing and supporting mental by encouraging them to look out for each other.   Not all wellbeing initiatives need to be driven from the top but can be adopted in the attitudes of employees themselves. 
  3. Ensure that you are making the time to regularly check in with employees be it virtually or in person, and trying to understand how they are on a personal level can make a huge difference. 
  4. Consider training your managers and leaders in spotting the signs of poor mental health within their teams.  The more knowledge around what to look for, the greater the chance that support will reach those who need it. 
  5. Ensure that you advocate an ‘open door policy’ in which employees are openly invited to voice any concerns regarding their mental health.
  6. Make it clear that any conversations you have with employees will be kept confidential so employees feel supported and able to share any issues that they may have.
  7. Make the necessary adjustments that are required to address the key issues that employees may be struggling with. This could be a reduced or altered work schedule which allows an employee to attend medical appointments or attend to other responsibilities. 
  8. Ensure that your business leaders and those in senior positions lead by example and take active steps to improve their own mental health.  By voicing what you do to support your own mental health can go a long way in encouraging others to do the same. 
  9. Encourage employees to draw on their own social support networks such as friends and family.  Social connectedness is an important protective factor in reducing the negative impact of poor mental health. 
  10. Signpost employees to support services you already have in place such as counselling sessions, a Digital GP or an EAP.  Often employees are unaware of what is available to support them and it can be useful to send out reminders so they are able to access the help they need.

Find out more

If you want to find out more about looking after your employee wellbeing or want to review your current employee benefits to ensure that they remain fit for purpose and relevant for the new world of work, please get in touch with a member of our specialist team.

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