How to spot the signs of deteriorating mental health at work

Why is it important to spot the signs of deteriorating mental health at work?

Having poor mental health has the potential to have a significant impact on both the individual, their family and friends, as well as their work colleagues and their organization. On a personal level, it can significantly affect quality of life, quality of relationships and can destroy confidence. On an organizational level, it can lead to poor attendance, poor performance and presenteeism (the practice of coming to work despite illness, injury or mental health problems, often resulting in lack of productivity), which can all have a financial impact on the business as well as cause additional pressures on colleagues and managers.

What are the signs to look for?

We all have times when our mental health is good, our mood is good, we feel upbeat, firing on all cylinders, in a state of flow and everything seems to be going well in our personal life and work life. There are times, however, when things just feel more difficult, we feel low, fed up, lacking energy and can’t seem to focus or concentrate fully. This is a normal part of being human. These ups and downs of mood and energy are natural processes which everyone goes through. We generally have coping strategies to manage the lower periods, which helps us cope and still be able to function relatively normally at home and at work.

In some circumstances, especially when people have been exposed to high levels of stress for a prolonged period of time, the low periods can last a bit longer, and although the usual coping strategies can keep people resilient and keep someone functioning; as time goes on, they can start to lose their resilience and lose their ability to cope as well as they had before.

In these situations, there are likely to be outward signs that someone is starting to struggle. It is usually those that know a person best that will spot those signs. Often the signs are a change in normal behaviour for that person. There could be a change in appearance with the employee looking dishevelled or appearing to neglect personal care. Emotions can be nearer the surface than usual and they can suddenly surface very quickly, the person may become more anxious or irritable than usual, quick to anger, become argumentative, or start getting more sensitive or tearful. There are often cognitive or performance effects too, so the person may find it more difficult to focus and concentrate and hence become more forgetful, start making mistakes, missing deadlines and struggle to plan and organize themselves. Individuals may also be struggling to sleep, so may look more tired and frazzled than usual, which compounds all the other symptoms they are experiencing. They may struggle to keep awake or concentrate for long period in the afternoon. You may notice them yawning more than usual.

Many individuals will try and hide those signs as they may not want other people to know that they are struggling to cope. This can happen for a long time, so deteriorating mental health may go undetected for a long time, and by the time the individual cannot hide it anymore, their health has significantly deteriorated. When someone’s mental health symptoms become too severe for too long, they can develop a mental health condition (such as anxiety or depression). These health conditions can be short- medium term (e.g. 3-6 months), however, they can also develop into longer term conditions (6 months +) and have the potential to recur over time. Therefore the effect of ignoring deteriorating mental health for a long time cannot be underestimated.

What should I do as a manager?

Knowing your staff is important. Knowing how they normally behave and act at work helps you notice when they start behaving differently. Having regular open, honest communication with your staff is key. If an individual feels they can speak with you in a confidential, non-judgmental manner, they are more likely to open up to you to say they are struggling. Having regular 1:1 meetings is important anyway, however, these can be a good opportunity to ask your staff how they are feeling, and directly giving them the opportunity at each of the 1:1’s to ask about stress, and if they are struggling with anything particular. You can reiterate the importance of asking for help at an early stage to help prevent problems down the line and reiterate that anything they say to you will be kept confidential and that the purpose is to ensure that they are fully supported where necessary. You can reassure people that everyone struggles occasionally, despite how resilient they normally are, and this is a normal part of being human.

If you notice someone’s behaviour or performance is changing or starting to dip, it is important to have a conversation with that staff member sooner rather than later. You don’t necessarily need to wait until the 1:1 as things may have settled, or even got worse by then. It can be more helpful to deal with issues as they arise, as the individual may be more willing to talk about them in the moment than later when they have settled.

Many managers are scared of talking about someone’s mental health, and this is understandable. Most people don’t feel equipped to deal with these conversations or are scared of saying the wrong thing. However, saying something just to get a conversation started, however clumsy it may feel, rather than saying nothing at all, at least allows the individual the opportunity to open up if they want to.

If the individual is struggling, there may be things you can do at work to help them until their symptoms improve or their usual coping strategies start working again. You could consider taking away some of the more difficult tasks temporarily, extend deadlines, allow them extra short breaks to help manage their tiredness and help improve their concentration. The aim is to take some of the pressure off them short-term so they can rebuild their resilience.  If the individual seems to be really struggling, you could suggest they see their GP for an assessment or possible treatment, refer them to an EAP if you have one (many of them offer counselling) or refer them to occupational health to get a broader understanding of their symptoms or condition and to identify any other adjustments that could help them at work. Occupational Health can also help identify if the employee is likely to need further medical input and can advise where to go for the appropriate help.

What should I do as a colleague?

If you notice any changes in behaviour in your colleagues, consider talking to them. You could enquire how they are, say that you have noticed that they don’t seem themselves and if there is anything you could do to help them. Sometimes just showing you care is enough for an individual to feel comfortable in opening up. If they choose not to say anything, then respect that, but if things start to deteriorate, you could consider mentioning your concerns to their manager, so the manager can ensure the individual also has an opportunity to discuss any specific concerns in their 1:1s so that appropriate help and support can be offered.

What should I do as an individual?

It is important to recognise your own signs that you are starting to struggle with managing your day-to day pressures. You may be working longer or later, especially if things are taking longer to do if you are struggling to focus and concentrate. You may achieve less in a day than usual, or be more irritable or feel less able to cope with normal work tasks and pressures. It is normal to have periods of stress and high pressure, and most people can cope with this, but if the periods of pressure and stress are prolonged, your resilience and ability to cope may be reduced which then can have a significant knock-on effect on your mental wellbeing.  If you feel your mental wellbeing is starting to deteriorate, try not to worry that you will be seen as “weak” if you ask for help. Everybody needs a little extra help and support at times, this is normal, and this may just be your time that support is required. Think about what advice you’d give a friend in this situation, you’d probably advise them to ask for and accept help. It is important at these times to try and reduce your pressures where possible and try to reduce your own expectations at home and work and don’t be too hard on yourself if you feel you are achieving less than usual. It is also important to prioritise self-care activities at this time (such as exercise, eating well, meditation, spending time with friends and family). Speaking to your manager may help, as they will then have an understanding on how you are feeling, what you are going through, and they may be able to reduce some of the pressures on you at work temporarily whilst you are going through this difficult period. If you have an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) then consider using it. This service usually gives you quick access to free talking therapy (counselling and CBT), and they have a wide range of resources and Advisors available to help individuals with any life event or difficulty they may be experiencing (e.g. stress management advice, legal advice, financial advice, elder care advice etc..). If your mental wellbeing has deteriorated for a prolonged period, you may be developing symptoms of anxiety and / or depression. In these situations, it is recommended you seek advice from your GP, who can perform a full assessment and advise on other treatment options available to you.

We often spend a lot of time at work, so it is important to look out for our colleagues, managers or direct reports and notice if they are behaving differently and displaying signs of deteriorating mental health. If signs are caught early, appropriate support can be put in place before there becomes a significant impact on an individual’s health, work performance and quality of life, which is a great benefit to both the individual and the organization.