Workplace mental health support

As a manager or colleague, it's important to speak openly about mental health issues at work and listen when others talk to you. Here's some advice for approaching the matter in the right way.

With one in four people in the UK experiencing a mental health issue in their lifetime and one in seven living with poor mental health at work the matter is relevant to everyone. We all have emotional wellbeing needs, which change according to circumstance and time.

Just as you’d reach for the first aid kit if someone cut themselves at work, without feeling the need to diagnose or understand the injury, mental health concerns need attention too. As a manager or colleague, you can play a valuable role in identifying when peers need support and intervention.

Warning signs of mental distress

Although the experience of mental distress is universal, everyone is different, and there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to warning signs and symptoms. Likewise, some symptoms are tricky to detect from the outside. Heeding changes in your colleague's normal behaviour is key. Have you noticed they are acting differently recently? Take a look at this physical and emotional change checklist:

Physical changes linked to mental distress

  • Skipping lunch or losing weight without dieting could indicate appetite changes
  • Looking or complaining of being tired could signal sleep problems
  • Holding the chest or shallow breathing could be signs of distress
  • Shakiness and restlessness could signal anxious feelings
  • Complaining of general aches and pains could be signs of physical tension or low mood
  • Complaining of headaches could signal stress
  • Complaining of stomach upsets (diarrhoea, constipation and nausea) could point towards anxious feelings
  • Appearing sweaty could be down to anxious feelings
  • A clenched jaw or grinding teeth could signal tension.

Emotional changes linked to mental distress

  • Mumbling or not speaking up could indicate feelings of shame
  • Withdrawing from social interaction could signal feelings of isolation
  • Lack of eye contact or a shrinking posture could be signs of low self-esteem
  • Asking ‘What’s the point?’ could suggest a lack of purpose or motivation
  • Seeming negative could be a sign of low mood
  • Appearing nervous could be linked to anxious feelings.

Behavioural changes associated with mental health issues

As well as the physical and emotional changes, you may become aware of behavioural changes that cause concern. These can include:

  • Greater use of substances such as alcohol, tobacco and drugs (prescription and illegal)
  • Poor concentration or reduced productivity
  • Deteriorating personal or work relationships, including bullying behaviours
  • Becoming more emotional, moody or over-reactive to others
  • Behaviour that’s out of character or out of the norm
  • Being withdrawn
  • Lack of interest in self-care
  • Taking more time off work than usual.

How to help colleagues with mental health conditions

As a colleague or manager, you are not expected to understand mental health conditions or take any responsibility for treating them, but you can help first and foremost by talking about the issue. Talking prevents stigma, and early action can prevent people from becoming more unwell.

More so than talking, it's important to listen. Just spending time with the person shows you care. Although colleagues might be interested in your perspective, it’s important not to assume you know what’s caused their feelings or what will help, and by not jumping in with advice you're letting the person affected set the pace for seeking support themselves. Lending a non-judgmental ear can help to show your colleague that you trust, respect and care about them. 

If they are ready for some supportive words, it can help to be sensitive in any responses you give. Phrases like ‘Cheer up,' ‘I’m sure it’ll pass’ and ‘Pull yourself together’ won’t help. Learning about the problem your colleague is experiencing can help you to support them better. It's possible they won't want to or feel comfortable talking to you. Don't take that personally. It may be that they would just rather talk to someone impartial. In that case you can referring them to HR, the occupational health team or their GP.

Maintaining social contact by involving your colleague in social events or chatting about other parts of your lives can also help them to feel more comfortable and supported. If you have an existing social relationship, you can try to ensure you don't lose it.

As well as the above, as a manager, you can help by:

  • Using routine management tools to identify and tackle problems or needs
  • Concentrating on making reasonable adjustments at work, with guidance from the employee’s GP, medical support or occupational health team
  • Maintaining communication if an employee goes off sick. Reassuring them early on and throughout their absence and keeping them informed about social events can help.

Evidence shows that staying in work can be a great help to those living with mental distress. It’s natural to worry about ‘saying the right thing,' but being there, listening compassionately and normalising the situation can help colleagues feel supported.

If you are supporting someone with a mental health crisis you can call:

  • SANEline on 0300 304 7000 from 4.30pm to 10.30pm everyday 
  • Samaritans on 116 123 on any phone at any time.

Last updated Thursday 18 April 2019

First published on Thursday 18 April 2019