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Workplace Wellbeing 3: Recognising the early signs of mental illness in the workplace

The most common mental health issues are stress, anxiety and depression. As a line manager, being able to recognise the early signs of a person suffering from a mental health issue will provide you with the opportunity to respond to your employees needs much earlier and put appropriate support in place that can help your employee to cope better at work.

Possible signs of stress, anxiety or depression in the workplace:

  • Decreased productivity and performance
  • Morale problems
  • Lack of cooperation
  • Frequent complaints of being tired all the time
  • Absenteeism
  • Presenteeism
  • Changes in a person’s behaviour
  • Alcohol and/or other drug misuse

It is important to recognise that it is not your role as manager to try to diagnose or provide medical advice. Every person experiences mental health issues in a different way and will often have a good idea themselves as to how they could be best supported in their job. 

The most important thing is you feel empowered to approach the person you suspect may be suffering and open up a dialogue with them to get a better understanding of what that person is experiencing and how or if you can support them. 

Sometimes a person needs to take some time off and be away from the workplace, just the same as a person who may be suffering from cancer, part of the treatment is to rest and be away from the workplace.

What if an employee comes to you and discloses a mental health issue?

This can be a daunting time for your employee and is certainly a conversation that needs to be handled with sensitivity. It’s important to remember that your staff member may be very worried about discrimination and feel they are taking a risk by disclosing this information. 

There is no legal obligation for a person to disclose a mental health issue and therefore reassuring your staff member that they have done the right thing will help to give your colleague a sense of confidence in their decision. You should also reassure the individual that the information they have shared with you is confidential and will not be shared with other colleagues.

In this case, try not to assume you know the person's symptoms. Mental health issues affect people differently and therefore asking questions about how they are personally affected will give you a greater understanding of how to support them. 

It is the role of the line manager to put in place some supportive and reasonable adjustments that can help enable your colleague to perform well at work and cope with their mental health difficulty. Ask your employee how they can be helped and what you can do to support them on a day to day basis. This may also need a conversation with HR or occupational therapy to ensure you are following organisational procedures and legislation.

What kind of reasonable adjustments can you make as a line manager to support staff with a mental health issue?

Making workplace adjustments to allow a person experiencing mental health problems to stay in work is important for a number of reasons. From a business perspective, proactive management of employees’ mental and physical health can produce a range of benefits, including reduction of sickness and absence, reduced staff turnover and greater staff engagement and productivity. Some examples of reasonable adjustments are:

  • Allowing somebody to take time out of the office if they are particularly stressed or anxious
  • A gradual return to work after a period of absence
  • Agreeing on the type of work they can handle whilst they are on a phased return
  • Allowing the possibility of working from home if there are difficulties with coming into the office. This could be 1 or 2 days a week
  • Flexible working hours, for example, allowing a person who has difficulties travelling in crowds to start and finish outside of rush hour times
  • Allowing your staff member to take time off if they are starting/reducing medication
  • Allowing somebody flexible hours to attend weekly therapy
  • Enabling part-time work or job share if unable to work full-time
  • Providing written instructions for someone whose stress or anxiety affects their memory
  • Increasing the frequency of 1-1’s
  • Making changes to the physical environment e.g noise, light, space if a person feels uncomfortable or distracted in their current workstation
  • Arranging for a buddy or mentor
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