How to recognise your team has mental health challenges.

January 6, 2020    Becky Wilkins     ,

Hard to spot and often under-estimated, mental health is the modern Achilles heel of many organisations.

On track to become a UK wide epidemic thanks to a staggering increase in cases over the last seven years, mental health is already driving seismic change in the way that organisations think about, nurture and care for their people.

The direct link between employee wellness, engagement and productivity is well documented and so it follows suit that unwell staff have the reverse effect.  They cost – not just in terms of lost productivity but also low staff engagement, poor morale, time off sick and potential staff attrition; nor are they limited to the individual that’s suffering as poor mental health impacts work colleagues too.

Mental health is one of the most overlooked aspects of wellbeing because employers have, for a long time, been ignorant about the importance of good mental health, unsure how to spot employees that were suffering and particularly un-confident in handling and communicating about these issues in the workplace.

The tide is already turning.

Greater awareness is helping to shape a more positive discourse about mental health in all its guises.  However, there is still a lot to be done in order to remove the stigma.  Research from the Mental Health Foundation[1] highlights the scale of the challenge with 9 out of 10 mental health sufferers experiencing discrimination and 56% of adults saying they would not hire someone with depression, even if they were the best candidate for the job.  It’s not surprising then that 67% of employees feel scared, embarrassed or unable to talk about mental health concerns with their employer and are more likely to suffer alone than seek help.

With 25% of the population likely to experience a mental health issue each year[2], it’s never been more apparent that mental health affects the masses indiscriminately and is far more varied and complex than you might expect.  While anxiety and depression are the certainly the most common conditions in the workplace, bipolar, generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and social anxiety disorder can all affect organisational productivity too.

Identifying the causes and spotting the signs.

Mental illness relates to disease and conditions that influence how a person thinks, feels and behaves and can be triggered by multitudinous factors including genetics, biology, psychology and environment.  Many of these triggers might stem from past trauma, difficulties in their personal lives (marriage breakdown, bereavement, financial difficulty etc) and very significantly, stress and problems at work.

Mental health problems in the workplace commonly manifest as stress and there are some key tell-tale signs of an employee experiencing difficulty – these are heightened tiredness and fatigue, a noticeable increase in sick days, a drop-in performance, low morale and short temper, unexpected displays of emotion, significant behavioural change and a change in appearance.

Knowing the signs is an important first step in addressing mental health, however it also relies on having an open, supporting and caring workplace where employees feel able and empowered to talk about their concerns and assured that they will get the help, support and guidance they need.

This is essentially describing a positive workplace culture and the organisations that are managing mental health most effectively have invested in the support systems, training and environment needed to give people the best, empowered employee experience.

A company’s culture can be hard to describe, for it is the atmosphere and energy of an organisation as well as its values, beliefs and behaviours.  As Corporate Wellness magazine explains: “Culture isn’t written down, it’s the unseen and immersive energy of a workplace — the backdrop of everything that happens every day at every company — whether you like it or not. It can support people and performance, and it can drag it down too.”[3]  Positive workplace cultures usually stem from strong leadership, a well-articulated vision and goals, regular communication, excellent work-life balance, mutual respect and appreciation, empowerment, support and inclusion.

Building a positive and healthy workplace culture requires an in-depth and evidence-based look at the organisations as a whole and a step-change in the way that employees’ mental health needs are both considered and supported.

Using workplace culture to promote better mental health.

Here are five ways to start managing mental wellbeing at work using workplace culture:

  1. Remove the stigma of mental health by letting employees know they can share their issues without judgement.

This starts by asking if your organisation understands mental health, how much it is impacting your business and whether it has policies in place that are fit for purpose. Make sure you have complete buy-in and back up from the board and encourage them to talk openly about the importance of employee wellbeing with the wider employee populous.  This will give it the mandate and attention it deserves and help the message ’it’s good to talk and we can help’ to cascade through the business.

  1. Make wellness part of your DNA and an ongoing priority.

Let employees know what support is available and how to access it.  Identify the pathways available for employees to share their worries and access support and make them as easy to find and use– this might be through one-to-ones with line managers, a buddy system with colleagues to eradicate day to day frustrations, or access to wellness activities such as exercise, nutrition, mindfulness and counselling services.

  1. Train employees in empathy and take the time to really know staff.

Those with responsibility for people have often been appointed due to their expertise, rather than their people management skills.  Invest in your line managers, train them how to spot the signs of mental health issues and equip them with the people and empathy skills needed to handle sensitive situations. The better you know your staff, the more able you will be to spot those suffering and address wellbeing issues before they become severe.

  1. Design wellness into the organisation and illness out.

Take a close look at your organisation and the main factors that are impacting worker wellbeing and the employee experience – use an employee survey to make this evidence based. Ask yourself and your employees whether current practices, behaviours and expectations are in line with being happy, healthy and productive or if they’re making people frustrated, stressed and unwell.  If more training, greater sociability, enhanced benefits, simplification of work practices or a redesign of the work environment could make staff happier and more efficient, take action.  Also, remember that the costs of employees on long-term sick leave with mental health issues could far outweigh the cost of making positive changes now.

  1. Encourage your culture to thrive.

Give employees the spaces and opportunity to come together and support each in other in their work.  A positive workplace culture relies on a workforce that can unite, communicate and collaborate with ease.  Whether it’s on formal work projects, through peer-to-peer mentoring, at company meetings or social events, do not underestimate the value a company can derive from giving employees the chance to build meaningful relationships and support systems with their peers.  This will help to build the culture of trust, respect and support that a wellbeing minded company is built.

Taking Action.

Undetected mental health issues can turn into hugely onerous problems for employees and staggering costs for the employer as decreased motivation and lost productivity turn into eroded morale, sickness absence and eventually staff attrition. Now, as companies become more knowledge-based and therefore people-focused, they are recognising the importance of keeping their greatest assets happy and healthy. It’s because of this that wellbeing and mental health in particular, is finally getting the funding, attention and support it deserves at the very highest levels of business.

While there is a growing universal acceptance that employers have a duty to better support employee wellbeing, the key to identifying and tackling mental health in particular lies in early detection. This not only requires greater education about the importance of asking for help but perhaps more importantly, requires a culture where employees can open up without judgement, stigma or fear of reprisal.

Chris O’Sullivan from the Mental Health Foundation sums up the importance of positive, empowering workplaces in a bid to prevent mental health issues.  He said: “Mental health is something we all have. Workplaces that challenge us, support and develop our sense of purpose, and support us when things are hard can play a massive role in protecting and building our mental health. A mentally healthy workplace can be built on the back of good basic line management relationships, clear HR policy and engagement of staff in decision making. Prevention is key – we need to enable everyone to flourish, those in distress to access help quickly, and those who have recovered from mental health problems to stay well and enjoy successful careers.”[4]

The wellbeing debate has moved on leaps and bounds over the last decade. Wellbeing is not tokenistic staff perks or slogan-ridden initiatives; it is global movement that supports self-care and celebrates the importance of asking for and receiving help. For people centric organisations, a fully-funded commitment to wellbeing is an absolute business necessity and a solid investment in the future productivity of your workforce.

Good mental health must be a priority for all of us, for there is no health without mental health.


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