Supporting mental health in the workplace

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min read
November 3, 2021
January 18, 2024
Managers need to ensure support to employees mental health
In this article

What do you talk about with your team? Chances are you have some set topics for discussion at your monthly check-ins or reviews – how are people getting on with their objectives, what progress are they making on projects, and what development opportunities would they like? In your less formal daily conversations maybe you also talk about what happened at the weekend, the football or what your kids are up to. You’re building relationships with people, keeping them on track and helping them grow….but we have to take it further.

Mental health in the workplace is a major issue

One in four people will experience mental health issues each year. Mental illnesses are more common, long-lasting and impactful than any other health condition. On top of this, following the Covid-19 pandemic, a third of adults and young people have said their mental health has gotten much worse since March 2020. Given all this, the chances are that if you are running a business or managing a team you’re going to have someone working closely with you right now who might be struggling with their mental health.  Would you know?

Research conducted by Opinium with the University of Warwick found that 67% of the employees that they surveyed had not told their employer about their mental ill-health, preferring to keep it a secret.  When you look at your absence figures some of those colds, cases of flue and back problems are highly likely to be due to stress, depression or anxiety.

The problem we face is, despite increased awareness of mental health issues over the last few years, it is still something that people find difficult to talk about, especially at work.  There’s a very real fear that this will lead to an employee being labelled as weak, and unable to do the job and that this will lead to them missing out on a promotion or interesting projects.  We have to tackle this.

Using check-in to support mental health in the workplace

The way to shift opinions and make a decisive change could be through using check-ins in a more positive way. Those regular check-in conversations can just be tick-box exercises, where managers and employees go through the motions, or they can make a real difference to the people we lead.  As human beings managing other human beings, I would argue that we have a responsibility to start deepening these conversations and making them far more meaningful.

How often do you start a check-in or appraisal conversation with something along the lines of ‘How are things going?’ or ‘How are you?’  The challenge I’d like to set you is to delve a bit deeper, and pay close attention to the unspoken messages as much as the words you hear.  Ask about the project that someone’s working on and how things are progressing then ask about how they’re coping with the pressure that progress (or lack of it) might be creating.  Ask about their development and ask about their work/life balance.  Create a conversation that addresses the whole person in front of you – the one that also exists outside of work. This is especially important following the rise of remote and hybrid working.

How to effectively support mental health in the workplace

What if someone opens up and tells you that they’re struggling? It’s really important that you carry on the conversation and ask how you can support them. Often the person best placed to know what they need is the person themselves and the solution is not necessarily time off. Everyone is different and there is no one approach that is correct. Encourage people to seek help via their GP or your EAP (Employee Assistance Programme) if you have one.  Offer ongoing support and continued conversation.  Keep having those ‘how was your weekend/did you see the football?’ conversations because they lay some of the groundwork for you to be able to go deeper when you need to. Sometimes when times are tough, work is the place that helps keep things ‘normal’ for people.

Finally, if you’re someone that has experienced a mental health issue then I encourage you to open up about it with team members, peers and leaders – by talking appropriately about our own experiences we start to break down the barriers and destigmatise what so many of us are experiencing. We can make it OK to say that things are not OK.

Our job if we are managing people, regardless of what our job title says, is to create an environment where people are thriving not just surviving and that means bringing mental health into the conversations we have.

Find out what mental health support is available at your workplace

It’s really important that all managers know what support their employer offers to any employees who need mental health support. Having this information at hand will ensure they can point employees in the right direction as soon as a situation arises. If you have an HR team, start there. If not, speak to senior leaders.

Questions to ask

  • Ask if your company has a written mental health policy. This will state exactly what protocol managers should follow if an employee requires mental health support. Around half of UK employers have one in place. If your company does have one, ask to have a copy. If they don’t, see if one is planned or ask them to consider creating one.
  • Find out if you have an employee assistance programme (EAP). Around half of employees in the UK have access to one. These usually include some form of mental health support, which may be delivered over the phone or online and is completely confidential. Find out how employees can access it while at home or work.
  • Are there any other initiatives offered to help employees, such as Mental Health First Aiders, Peer networks or Mental Health Champions? Find out if anyone in the organisation has experience or training on how to best support employees’ mental health and ensure you know how to contact them.

Signs an employee may need support with their mental health

There are various signs that may indicate a person could be struggling with their mental health.

  • Poor concentration levels
  • Finding it more difficult to make decisions
  • Loss of interest in their work or colleagues
  • Feeling overwhelmed by their workload
  • Becoming more tearful
  • Tiredness and a general lack of energy
  • Becoming more withdrawn
  • Finding it difficult to get a good night’s sleep
  • Losing their temper more easily and becoming more prickly/sensitive

This list is by no means exhaustive and even if an employee is exhibiting one or two of these it does not mean they have a problem, it is about a change from their usual behaviour. If you notice an employee is starting to exhibit a few of these signs, then they may need help to make them feel like themselves again.

This article has been co-written with Sarah Rudder founder of Ginger Dog Development.

About Sarah Rudder

Sarah has spent many years working with diverse businesses and people at all stages of their careers enabling them to be the best version of themselves. She is particularly interested in confidence, self-esteem and the ways in which we self-sabotage. Sarah is passionate about supporting people in this tough always-on world we live in and is a specialist in Mental Toughness and a Mental Health First Aider.

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