How do you recognise mental health issues in the workplace?

Becky Mundie

May 2024 ⋅ 6 min read

Two men sat opposite each other at a canteen-like booth, one man looking worried

Do you have employees who seem to be off sick a lot or, equally, still come in when they are ill? Perhaps you have staff whose quality or attention at work has dropped, or maybe an employee who is particularly quiet.

Chances are, you may be noticing some mental health issues in the workplace. Did you know that 1 in 4 adults experience a mental health issue in an average year? Whether you have experienced mental illness yourself or have witnessed it in friends or family, your employees will likely have, too.

According to Mental Health at Work, 57% of all working days that are lost to sickness are mental health related. This compares to a similar study in 2014 which suggested 12.7%. However, when it comes to long-term sickness, 63% of these absences were due to mental illnesses in 2023; this is quite the jump from 59% in 2020.

What are the most common mental health issues at work?

Depression and anxiety are the main mental illnesses that appear in the workplace and, while not a mental illness, stress is a main cause for both. Looking at ways to reduce stress

During adults’ lifetime, 16% will experience depression and 30% will be impacted by anxiety. And this isn’t looking at the specific stresses from shift-based work.

There are many contributors to poor mental health of shift-based workers. What may appear as a small thing (like late rotas, making last minute shift changes, or a reluctance around annual leave) can lead to poor work-life balance and fatigue - which, if left untreated or unaddressed, can truly develop into unmanageable mental health issues.

If an employee works early morning, night, or rotating shifts, they could develop Shift Work Disorder. When working these types of shifts, people can have significant sleep loss and even develop insomnia, losing 1 to 4 hours of sleep per night. As this adds up, so does tiredness and their mental wellbeing.

So, how do you know what to look for - and how can you address it and look to improve mental health issues in the workplace?

Mental health symptoms: How to tell if an employee is secretly struggling

  • Uncharacteristic behaviour
  • Poor time management (turning up late, slowness with tasks)
  • Increase in absence (lateness & sickness - this is absenteeism)
  • Hardly taking sick days when they really need it (this is presenteeism)
  • Low motivation & enjoyment of tasks
  • Being withdrawn, seeming distant (socially & with tasks)
  • Tiredness & fatigue
  • Appearing nervous, irritable, or on edge
  • Changes in appetite, overeating, or not eating enough
  • Difficulty concentrating & making decisions

If you know of an employee exhibiting any of these symptoms or later recognise any characteristics, it is important to make that step in having that conversation.

Noticing and addressing concerns for your staff shows them that you care about them. That alone can make them feel valued and seen, and be the first step in the right direction.

Two people sat at a table, each holding their own coffee cup.

How to address mental health at work

It isn’t always waiting for an employee to approach you to discuss their struggles. Talking about mental health can be one of the biggest hardships and anxieties for those facing it.

It’s no use holding off and waiting for them to step forward. That way, it can be too late and lead to their resignation or, worse, a breakdown and long term sickness.

According to Mental Health at Work, 84% of employees feel unable to discuss mental health issues at work - whether that is down to their own comfort, managers feeling unapproachable, or the environment not feeling safe and supportive.

As an employer, you have a duty of care to staff - and this is for both physical health and mental health. They are of equal importance. Especially with the Equality Act 2010, someone with poor mental health can be considered disabled. 

So, to ensure staff are in a safe environment and feel supported, employers and managers have a duty to check in with employees they expect might be struggling.

How to start a conversation about mental health at work

The mental health charity, Mind, is a fantastic resource and has a great checklist for managing conversations at work around the topic. 

Arrange some time

Don’t choose to speak to your employee over their break. That is their one time to unwind and decompress - which won’t happen if they are sitting in front of their manager, being urged to talk about their personal struggles.

Don’t make it about work

You’re having this conversation because their work is being affected, we know, but it’s looking at why this is happening. Remember, this isn’t a disciplinary meeting. They are a person before your employee!

Make them comfortable 

Remove them from the work setting - go somewhere for a coffee, private and away from colleagues, to create an informal and safe environment for them to feel comfortable enough to talk.

Don’t be authoritative

This isn’t a disciplinary matter. Any meeting with your manager can be anxiety-inducing, let alone one out of the blue. In the lead up, they’ll think they’re in trouble. You want them to be comfortable enough to open up.

Actively listen

Listening goes without saying, but it is more than that. Give them time to speak and don’t interrupt them. Leave any questions until they have finished. They want someone to listen, not to give advice, so try to keep what you think is best to yourself.

Reach ‘next steps’

If they have opened up or told you about their struggles, it is important to decide on ‘next steps’. See what you can change in their day-to-day tasks or breaks, arrange ongoing check-ins with them.

💡
You may find it difficult to bring it up and having this kind of conversation, especially when it is so personal, but initiating that chat could be throwing your employee a lifeline.
A bright orange life buoy hanging on a while wall beside a 'no diving' sign

How to support mental health at work

Recognising mental health issues at the workplace and having that sit down with an employee you believe to be struggling isn’t a tick box exercise. 

Being continuously aware of employees’ wellbeing is vital in your business’ strength and, of course, employee experience. Doing so can avoid presenteeism, absenteeism, and generally improve your employees’ view of your company. 

UK companies can save up to £8 billion a year by implementing better mental health support in the workplace. So, what can you do to improve it?

For the company

  • Signpost useful resources, like Mind, the Samaritans, and mindfulness apps.
  • Promote good mental health practice at work, encouraging breaks and an openness in understanding defeat the stigma.
  • Sign up to solutions your whole company can access at any time, at either at a discount or free.
  • Create better areas for breaks that allow them to fully unwind.
  • Assign mental health first aiders or mental health ‘champions’ who are trained for people to comfortably approach.
  • Have managers use one-to-ones with their team members for more wellbeing purposes than reviews.
  • Use national days and campaigns around mental health and wellbeing to increase awareness and positivity.

Employees with a mental illness at work

  • After the conversation, confirm next steps, whether that’s them seeing a GP or trying a resource and you offering any help, like a change to their day-to-day tasks.
  • Arrange regular check-ins to see how they are doing.
  • If needed, meet with them either weekly or daily to help prioritise their workload.
  • Allow them more rest breaks or any adjustments, if necessary.
  • Keep it all to yourself. It is between you and your employee and up to them whether they want it disclosed to the rest of the team. 

Employees on long-term sick leave from work

  • Check in with them but also give them space. You can organise catch ups in advance to avoid them worrying about work.
  • Once they are ready to return, consider phase returns and create a schedule to help them ease back into work
  • If needed, meet with them either weekly or daily to help prioritise their workload.
  • Allow them more rest breaks or any adjustments, if necessary.

Wrap-up

Putting everything we have listed into place, again, isn’t a tick box exercise. You as a company and employer must practise what you preach. 

You may have implemented useful resources and support that your employees can use, but they won’t necessarily feel comfortable or safe to use them if the work culture or attitude towards mental health hasn’t changed.

A positive attitude and openness to mental health issues in the workplace is key to ensure all staff feel safe and comfortable to speak up if they are struggling. Plus, it can greatly improve company morale and reduce staff turnover.

We couldn’t say it enough - focusing on employee experience is vital in strengthening your business.

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