How to support a member of staff whos experiencing a mental health problem

Written by
Emma Mamo

04 Apr 2016

04 Apr 2016 • by Emma Mamo

We all have mental health just as we all have physical health, and considering how much time we spend at work, it’s not surprising that our jobs can have a significant impact on our mental wellbeing. 

Identify the signs

Everyone’s mood can fluctuate day to day, or even more often, it can be hard to know whether someone is just going through a difficult period, or whether they’re experiencing something more serious or long term, such as the symptoms of a mental health problem. Employers that make mental health at work a priority will find that, as well as supporting members of staff experiencing a mental health problem, this benefits each and every member of staff and results in a more engaged, productive and loyal workforce overall.

How many different ways can someone be suffering with mental health?

Mental health problems affect everyone differently, but there are some common symptoms to be aware of. Someone experiencing a mental health problem such as depression may struggle with seemingly simple tasks and things like motivation, punctuality and decision-making. They may behave differently – an employee who is normally outgoing and chatty may become quiet and withdrawn. Common workplace pressures - such as excessive workload, long hours, or unreasonable targets – can both cause and worsen mental health problems. That’s why it’s vital that employers tackle the causes of poor mental health at work. Regardless of your role or seniority, we’d urge all employees to look out for each other. This is especially true for HR professionals. Identifying early if someone might be struggling with their mental health is a good way to help prevent things getting worse. 

Even if you’re not sure, the best approach is to talk to the colleague you’re worried about. Understandably, many of us fear saying the wrong thing, but staying silent is one of the worst things you can do – that person may be struggling in silence, waiting for someone to reach out to them. You don’t necessarily have to talk about mental health problems – just ask how they’re doing. That’s enough to let them know you care and that they can speak to you should they need to. 

Try to adopt a sensitive, common-sense approach. The rules of thumb are:

Encourage people to talk

Start by talking about general wellbeing, and let people know that they can talk to you if they need to. Ideally, employers should strive to create an open environment at work where people feel able to have a dialogue about their wellbeing, and even disclose a diagnosed mental health problem should they wish. Remember everyone’s experience of mental health problems is different, so if you’re worried about a colleague, speak to them and focus on the person, not the problem.

Avoid making assumptions

Don’t try to guess what symptoms a co-worker might have and how these might affect their life or their ability to do their job – many people are able to manage their condition and perform their role to a high standard.

Respect confidentiality

Remember mental health information is highly confidential and sensitive. Don’t pass on information unnecessarily – not least because this breach of trust could negatively impact an individual’s mental health.

Be open to change

Bear in mind that although you have broached the subject they may not be ready to discuss their wellbeing, and they may also be experiencing personal troubles as well as work-related ones. So even though they may not have opened up, you’ve still let them know you care and you’re there for them when the time is right. In addition to this, small gestures can also make a huge difference – things like thanking people for their work, making them a tea or coffee, or asking them about their weekends or plans for the evening. Getting outside and getting some fresh air is a great way to de-stress, so do urge call colleagues to go for a walk at lunchtime, even if only for a few minutes. When people are busy, they might feel that they’re not able to take breaks, but the majority of people are actually more productive after spending some time away from work, having had space to reflect and prioritise their workloads. 

Employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for someone who has disclosed a mental health problem or other disability. Typically, when it comes to mental health problems, these are small, inexpensive changes, such as more regular catch ups with managers to help manage workload, change of workspace, working hours, or breaks. Above all though we want employers to see supporting the mental health of all their staff - whether they have a mental health problem or not - as part of being a responsible employer. In order for workplace wellbeing to become an organisational priority, it needs to have backing from all levels right up to the most senior. Smart employers appreciate that wellbeing measures reap rewards in terms of boosting staff morale and productivity and reducing sickness absence. And wellbeing initiatives needn’t be large or expensive.

What initiatives can you implement?

For example, regular meetings create an opportunity and space to talk - not just about work but also wellbeing. Initiatives such as flexible working hours and social events can improve work-life balance and relationships between employees. Some employees may feel unable to speak to colleagues about their mental health, and this is where schemes like Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) can be useful, allowing staff to discuss their problems in confidence. As well as having initiatives in place, they need to be promoted effectively and easy to access.

Because people experience mental health problems differently, organisations should support managers and staff to work together to develop Wellness Action Plans - available free from Mind’s website. This tool identifies what helps people stay well at work as well as specific symptoms, triggers and support needs and agreed solutions. These person-centred, tailored plans can be very effective as they recognise the fluctuating nature of mental health problems and the way mental health affects everyone differently. Even more importantly, they enable constructive and supportive conversations about managing mental ill health. 

In recognition of some of the positive steps being made to support staff experiencing mental health problems and the wider workforce, later this year Mind will launch a Workplace Wellbeing Index, enabling employers to celebrate the good work they’re doing to promote staff mental wellbeing and get the support they need to be able to do this even better, and encourage other organisations to follow suit.