How to identify mental health issues at work

Signs of Mental Illness at Work

Many workplaces are now taking mental health far more seriously.


The need to look after employee wellbeing is now finally being recognised, with managers making the relevant changes within their organisations.


This often means introducing anti-discriminatory policies and taking mental health awareness training.


However, what if an employee has a mental health issue? Would a manager know how to spot the signs, and offer the right help?


Why are managers best placed to spot the signs?

Luckily, line managers are ideally placed to identify such issues within their teams and the wider workforce.


In their role, they’ll see the same people most days at work. Therefore, if anyone’s behaviour is out of character, then the manager is likely to notice.


Of course, other people within the team may notice something out of the ordinary too. Unlike other colleagues though, a manager has a duty of care and the authority to act.


If they’ve received the correct training and are committed to workplace wellbeing, they’ll also be able to help.


What are the signs to look for?

Unlike physical health problems, mental health issues can be difficult to spot and can vary from person to person.


A broken leg, for example, has a clear diagnosis and a definite timescale for recovery. Mental health is much more difficult to ascertain. As a result, managers shouldn’t try to diagnose a problem – just acknowledge that one exists.


Here is a list of behaviours and warning signs to look out for:


  • Erratic behaviour
  • Missing deadlines and forgetting things
  • Complaining about workloads
  • Being withdrawn and not socialising with others
  • An inability to concentrate
  • Increased consumption of caffeine, cigarettes, medication or alcohol
  • Loss of confidence
  • Sudden or unplanned absence
  • Arguing or conflict with co-workers
  • Taking on too much – working too many hours, or always volunteering for tasks
  • Irritability, aggression, or being more boisterous than usual

Some physical signs include:


Being run down and frequent minor illnesses

  • Headaches
  • Sleep depravation
  • Lack of care over appearance
  • Weight loss or gain

As noted earlier, it would be almost impossible to diagnose any kind of mental health problem from any (or a combination) of these symptoms. However, they do signify that something is out of the ordinary.


Managers should try to balance what ‘normal’ behaviour from a colleague would be compared to anything different. This way, they can work out whether the behaviour is connected to anything in particular. These can include certain tasks, the team dynamic, the environment, or a certain time of day.


Preventing presenteeism

Not acknowledging the signs and symptoms of mental ill health can lead to presenteeism. This is when employees come to work despite illness (either mental or physical), and are unable to be at their best.


It is often seen as a badge of honour to come to work when ill, but in reality employees will be unproductive and only make themselves feel worse. They are unlikely to tell their manager that anything is wrong.


What should managers do?

At BounceBack, we advise that regular appraisals and informal chats can keep a manager informed about what is going on with their team. These everyday management techniques allow the manager to raise any concerns they have in a neutral setting without needing to be too pushy or intrusive.


Sometimes, behaviour in an employee such as poor performance can be a symptom of a deeper problem. It’s important for a manager is to avoid being judgmental and immediately take the hard line. Any issue should be discussed at an early stage, but in an open way that encourages conversation.


For example, if an employee with a previously good record suddenly started performing poorly, the manager should start the conversation with “I couldn’t help noticing that your figures have gone down recently, is everything ok?”


The open question, used sympathetically and supportively, can allow the employee to be honest and open up about what’s on their mind.


Conversations should be framed in way that shows that the manager wants to help. It’s important to have the soft skills to do this, otherwise it may come across as accusatory or even confrontational.


Doing so will also require trust – if as a manager you’ve been dismissive of employees’ personal problems consistently in the past, why would they open up to you now? A culture of wellbeing needs to already be there.


Why would employees be reluctant to talk?

There is still a considerable stigma attached to mental health, especially in workplaces with a culture of having to be busy and ambitious all the time. These toxic workplaces often involve a reluctance by employees to even take holidays, so coming forward with a mental health condition would be especially difficult.


To build a culture of trust and confidence, it is a good idea to start by communicating with staff about the changes that will be made to improve health and wellbeing at work.


Sometimes it can be difficult engaging with an employee who is reluctant to talk about mental health. To encourage them to open up, the following techniques can be used:


  • Reassure the employee that any conversation will take place in confidence
  • Ensure any conversation takes place somewhere private
  • Consider their possible reasoning for not opening up
  • Ask if they’d like to bring in a friend, trusted colleague or advocate to support them
  • Reassure them that discrimination and judgement is not acceptable at work
  • Let them know your door is always open if they don’t want to talk right now

How can managers learn to identify mental health issues?

With the correct training, managers can learn how to both identify and then help anyone with a mental health issue. As accredited Mental Health First Aiders, BounceBack recommend the two-day course for both raising awareness and developing the skills needed to manage employees’ mental health.


According to governing body Mental Health First Aid England, 140,000 people were trained in 2018-19 – the most ever in a single year, from local hairdressers to staff in global corporations.


Almost half a million people in Britain have now been through an MHFA programme, which is about one in every 100 adults. High profile advocates of MHFA include Rolls Royce, the Lloyds Group and EasyJet, showing just how seriously big business takes mental health.


While MHFA is not intended to be a ‘cure all’ for workplace wellbeing, it is an excellent place to start in order to develop the basic verbal and non-judgemental listening skills needed.


Learn more about MHFA here.

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