In a major study into workplace wellbeing by UK-based mental health charity Mind, 48% of the 44,000 workers surveyed said they had experienced a mental health problem while performing their current job – yet only half of those individuals had spoken to their employer about it.
Many employees are reluctant to disclose mental health issues to their colleagues, often due to feelings of shame or vulnerability, or a fear of overstepping workplace boundaries by bringing up personal struggles.
Recognizing when someone is having difficulty and being able to offer support could help prevent a serious mental health issue from spiraling out of control.
Even if you don’t feel you can help someone directly, you can still point them in the direction of someone who can.
How to spot mental health issues at work
1. Untypical behavior
If a colleague is suddenly acting aggressively, being unusually quiet, or otherwise not themselves, take note. No two people experience mental health issues the same way, but there are often patterns. Men may respond to anxiety and depression with anger, rather than sadness, whereas calm colleagues may become irritable and aggressive.
2. Uncharacteristic or untidy appearance
Behavioral changes may be accompanied by a change in appearance, such as dressing inappropriately or neglecting grooming.
3. Decreased productivity
Employees experiencing poor mental health may struggle to complete tasks and show low levels of engagement and motivation as well as difficulty concentrating.
4. Change in sleeping patterns
Lack of sleep in the service of work assignments is frequently worn as a badge of honor in unhealthy work environments, but insomnia and difficulty sleeping are red flags for potential mental health issues. If a colleague regularly shares with you that they have a sleep deficit, consider recommending they seek professional help. Holding a workshop on good sleep hygiene is a great way to show employees that sleep is valued. Read our article nilo.health for your team’s body & vitality to learn how nilo.programs help educate on this critical topic.
5. Change in eating patterns
Employees who regularly skip lunch or avoid eating with co-workers, especially if they previously did so, are cause for concern – the underlying issue may be an eating disorder, self-neglect, or a general disinterest in socializing.
An employee who isolates themselves from colleagues by withdrawing or shows a lack of interest in shared daily activities that were previously enjoyed is also reason for concern.
7. Increased absence
An employee taking regular, short-term absences may indicate that they are attempting to cope with an underlying mental health matter.
8. Changes in working patterns
Employees who start arriving late or leaving early may not be “just” dodging their work responsibilities – they may be struggling to keep their head above water while coping with a mental health issue.
9. Irrational fears, paranoia, or anxiety
Excessive anxiety around job security, paranoia regarding co-workers, and irrational fears around non-work-related topics may well be rooted in a mental health issue.
10. Substance use/misuse
If you notice a colleague struggling with some form of substance misuse, it’s crucial to see past the stigma around the topic. Often it’s an indicator that someone needs urgent help. Read our article Substance use disorders & the workplace to learn more.
If you notice an employee exhibiting any of the signs listed above, it’s time to initiate a conversation. Even if the behavior turns out not to be related to a mental health issue, you can learn a lot in the process of just asking someone how they’re doing and feeling about their work responsibilities – as well as build an important connection.
Remember that three out of four people say they’re fine even when they’re struggling, so you may need to ask a colleague how they’re doing more than once.
Ideally, team-leads should check in regularly on the mental health of their team. Not everyone is willing to discuss their mental health in a group setting, so also try scheduling one-to-one catch-ups, using an anonymous survey (such as those created by employee evaluation specialists, Leapsome or Peakon), or even sending individual employees a link to a playful check-in scale and asking which image they resonate most with.
A 2018 survey by Accenture found that 61% of employees who shared their mental health struggles with someone at work, shared them first with a close colleague. As the authors write: “This figure alone highlights the importance of ensuring that everyone in the workplace has an awareness of mental health and the knowledge to direct colleagues to professional help or to the right point of contact in their organization.”
It should also be noted that just 15% of the 2,170 UK employees surveyed by Accenture chose an HR team member or workplace wellbeing specialist as their first point of contact.
Building a culture where conversations about mental health are the norm and leaders model mental health-friendly behavior is the single most important preventative step an organization can take.
You’ll find step-by-step guidelines on how to put policies and procedures in place to support this – and plenty of other practical advice – in our Corporate Sanity Guide.