Mental health problems cost employers in the UK £30 billion a year through lost production, recruitment and absence.  It is estimated that in any year 3 out of 10 employees will have a mental health problem of some sort, and as work is often a key source of stress these difficulties are likely to arise in the workplace. Line managers are in a unique position to make a real difference, using the relationship with their employees to detect troubles early on and helping them to find appropriate support. Early intervention has been shown to be hugely beneficial and may prevent mental illness from becoming more severe. While there are people who battle with life-long conditions, many of those who experience mental health issues such as depression or anxiety have a good chance of recovering and improving. Being alert to potential issues and responding well allows organisations to retain good employees and sends a message to their staff that they can expect to be supported in difficult times; it engenders trust. It is good too for the employee, who in most cases is keen to perform well at work. This I hope will raise awareness of some of the signs that a person may be struggling, suggest how to talk about mental health issues and offer some easy to implement changes that could support employees.

A Brief Guide to Mental Health

We all have mental health; sometimes we feel good and sometimes we don’t. There are times when we feel low, anxious, upset or angry and there are periods when it feels especially difficult to manage these feelings. Life events and stresses such as bereavement, car accidents, prolonged illness, the end of a relationship or any major change can test our resolve. These events are often triggers for mental health issues and any manager would be wise to attend to their team more closely in the aftermath of such incidents. The underlying causes of distress are often complex and require careful assessment by a professional.  Here are some signs that somebody might be struggling:

  • Changes in behaviour, mood or how they interact with colleagues – more tearful, angry, hopeless, overwhelmed or manic.
  • Change in motivation, work performance and output.
  • Struggles to concentrate or make decisions.
  • Changes in appearance – weight gain or loss, appearing tired or unwell.
  • Loss of interest in activities they previously enjoyed.
  • Frequent lateness, complaints of disrupted sleep.
  • Increase in drinking, smoking or changes in appetite.
  • Increased absence or frequent illness.

The most commonly diagnosed mental health conditions in the UK are depression and anxiety, or a mixture of the two although no two people experience exactly the same symptoms. Depression typically refers to prolonged low feelings, hopelessness, lack of motivation and can be accompanied with physical illness. Anxiety usually involves high levels of worry, intrusive thoughts and can be accompanied by panic attacks.

Talking to Employees about Mental Health

You will find it easier to be open about mental health issues if your organisation has an understanding and supportive attitude about it. A clear policy that states mental health will be treated with the same seriousness as physical health is a good start. Managers need to be approachable and confident in talking about mental health issues, to normalise rather than sensationalise the issues.

  • Regular informal one to one meetings and catch-ups are a great way to demonstrate approach ability and offer opportunities for sensitive issues to be discussed. They build trust.
  • Hold meetings with staff where you have privacy and they feel comfortable.
  • Encourage people to talk with simple, non-judgemental questions e.g. ‘How are you doing right now?’ or ‘I’ve noticed you arriving late more often and wondered if you were ok?’ or ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’
  • Listen without judging or jumping in too quickly to offer advice as it can be hard for an employee to admit that they are struggling and need support.
  • Be empathetic, it is okay to say something like ‘that must be hard for you’ or ‘sorry you are finding things difficult’ rather than immediately trying to fix the problem.
  • Don’t make assumptions about how they feel because everybody’s experience is unique and individual. You may have had similar experiences but they won’t be quite the same.
  • Be honest and clear about any concerns you have, like impaired performance or high levels of absence. It is important to deal with these early on.
  • Offer confidentiality, people need to know that the information they give will be treated sensitively and shared with as few people as possible. Discuss what they are ok sharing and with whom.
  • Negotiate an action plan together – identify what their stress triggers are e.g. tight deadlines, getting to work on time, meeting with clients etc., potential impact on their work, what support they need and who to contact in a crisis.
  • Agree to review the action plan with your employee periodically and remind them that they can approach you again if they need to.
  • Encourage them to seek support either through their GP or through contact with the Mental Health Center 0844 351 0123
  • It is natural as a manager to feel worried or stressed as a result of supporting someone with mental health concerns. You can access support for yourself via the Mental Health Center also.

Supporting an Employee with Mental Health Needs

According to Mind, the mental health charity, simple changes in attitude, expectations or communication can make a big difference. By focusing on what someone can do rather than what they can’t do, by remembering to thank them for work done well, or by allowing an additional 10 minute break when they feel under pressure a person might feel more able to remain at work. They suggest some easy, cost-effective solutions:

  • Flexible working hours – many people who have depression or anxiety suffer from insomnia or some form of disrupted sleep; being able to start later and finish later can reduce some of the pressure.
  • Change of workplace – a quieter space may allow someone to concentrate better, or they may prefer to be situated next to a supportive team member.
  • Allow time off for medical or counselling appointments.
  • Offer additional training or supervision as required.
  • Re-allocation of tasks or change of duties – this can be a temporary adjustment until they feel able to take on a full workload again.
  • Implement a formal or informal buddy system.
  • A Lightbox or a seat next to natural daylight can help those who with Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.).
  • Working from home – this may help those who have anxiety around commuting, or have low energy levels. They might be capable of more productive work at home.
  • Phased return to work, building up hours gradually.

Managing Absence

If your employee needs to take sick leave you can help by keeping in touch at agreed times and by agreed methods – phone or email – to see how they are doing and offering reassurance that their job is safe. Focus on their well-being and avoid placing undue pressure on them to return. You can keep them informed of any major changes at work.

Offer a return to work interview in which you can check their progress and agree how to manage their return – consider all the adjustments in the previous section. Explain any changes to their role or work and consider offering lighter duties initially. Agree which hours they will work and what to communicate with the wider staff team. Once the employee is back at work arrange regular catch up meetings to that you can discuss their progress, and suggest an open-door policy so that they can raise any concerns they have.

Although mental health is often perceived as a taboo subject it doesn’t have to be. Through simple support, interest and adjustments managers can make a positive difference to employees with mental health needs, providing support for employees and ensuring that ultimately their organisation retains a healthier, happier workforce.