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How to Spot Signs of Mental Health Issues at Work

This is Mental Health Awareness Week and there are numerous events going on around the UK and the rest of the world designed to get us talking. There’s no doubt that mental health is one of the biggest issues we all face nowadays. Often chronically underfunded in many societies, it’s accompanied by a huge amount of stigma.

It is all too easy for us to ignore the signs of mental illness both at home and in the workplace.

Signs of Mental Illness

Mental health covers a wide range of different conditions and can be daunting to face, both for those who are suffering from a problem and those who want to help. Just because someone is unhappy for a period, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean they have severe depression. Someone who is worried about work might not be experiencing anxiety issues. This is a point of views we tend to cling onto when we see a friend, family member or colleague who isn’t coping too well.

It’s something they’ll get over. They just need a bit of time.

It’s estimated that 1 in 4 people will have a problem with mental health during their lifetime. Ignoring mental health issues in the workplace can be catastrophic not only for the individual but could also impact on the business itself.  Spotting the signs and reaching out a helping hand is therefore important.

  • An employee is feeling anxious: It’s not uncommon for staff to get worried when they are under stress, for instance. But it can be a sign there is a mental health issue if it carries on for longer than expected or is interfering with how that person does their job.
  • Lack of motivation: If an employee is having trouble getting motivated or seems sad all the time, they may be suffering from depression. There could be numerous reasons why they feel this way – perhaps they have suffered a relationship breakdown, have been diagnosed with an illness or are having difficulty coping with work.
  • Emotional changes: Outbursts of anger or emotion that are out of the ordinary can be another sign of mental health issues. Stress and anxiety levels could be high causing a sudden change in behaviour and there may be a number of reasons for this.
  • Being withdrawn: Behaviour doesn’t have to be so overt – people can become more withdrawn if there is a problem, refusing to engage in normal activities or finding ways to avoid certain situations.

For employers, there are a variety of signs that someone is struggling with their mental health –  unexplained poor performance, increased absence from work, bad time keeping and poor judgement are just a few. A person suffering from mental illness might try to ease things by engaging in substance abuse, perhaps drinking more than usual. All these can be difficult issues for employers to address if they don’t have the right processes in place or are not confident in what they are doing.

The Stigma of Mental Health

The big problem that many businesses face is the stigma of mental health. When it is affecting an employee’s work, for example if they are suffering from depression, this can often be treated as an inconvenience or the fault of the person with the mental health problem. We still, for some reason, adhere to the idea of ‘pulling up our socks’ and ‘soldiering on’.

With discrimination, fear and shame in play, it is very hard for the potential of mental health as an asset to be realised, but it is time this changed. According to ACAS, employee mental health problems cost employers £30 billion a year.  There are external and internal factors that impact on mental health in the workplace. At home, there could be problems with relationships, bereavement or debt issues. At work, there could be increased stress from organisational changes or heavy workloads.

For employers who understand that mental health can affect any of us at any time, putting in the right processes and creating a climate where employees feel safe talking about their problems is important.

It is widely acknowledged that there are 3 success factors for achieving a sustained positive impact on mental health at work: culture, leadership and policy.

Workplaces need to create a culture in which mental health is valued: where disclosure is encouraged, support is present, and everyone feels that their work and the benefits they receive contribute to their wellbeing.

Leaders need to feel that investing in mental health is a valuable use of their time, that it is critical to achieving business results. This needs to cascade from senior leadership to middle management and then line manager & supervisors. At every touch point leaders need to understand how to engage with mental health.

Businesses need systems and policies that support mental health and well-implemented policies can be shaped both by leadership and by those with lived experience. Support is only effective if people know it is available, can utilise it without fear, and find it helpful – communication is key.

This report by Mental Health Foundation is an important resource for any business that is interested in improving employee wellbeing.

While larger organisations can introduce robust health and wellbeing initiatives for their employees, it’s a lot more difficult for small and medium size businesses constrained by their operating budgets. Using an outsourced occupational health service can help develop screening processes and put in place the support that employees need to get through tough times and find the help they need. That includes effective health screening and better health promotion, both of which create an environment where employees are more comfortable talking about mental health issues.

You can get involved in Mental Health Awareness Week by sharing posts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram using the hashtag #MHAW17.


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