If someone fell over or was taken physically ill at work, the chances are that people would know to call the company first-aider for help until the professionals arrived. An employee who experiences a mental-health problem, however, may be much more difficult to spot – and even if people are concerned about a colleague, they often don’t know what to do to help.
Following almost 18 months of managing COVID-19 in the UK, mental health concerns are likely to be rife in the workforce. From people who already had, for example, anxiety conditions and are now experiencing increased symptoms, to employees who have never experienced mental-health challenges in the past but now find themselves struggling to cope, it would be the rare person who hasn’t been psychologically affected by the stress of COVID-19 and its lockdowns.
If you are an HR practitioner – or a manager responsible for leading teams – how can you best support employees who may be suffering with a mental health issue?
Watch for the signs
Most managers are probably aware of some of the key signs of depression and anxiety, but it’s important to recognise that not everyone presents the same symptoms in the same way – and that mental health concerns extend beyond anxiety and depression! The key is to look out for changes in behaviour that may indicate all is not well.
Someone who is usually sociable may become withdrawn, for example, or a colleague who is always punctual and well presented may start frequently being late and appear to have lost interest in their appearance. Another previously confident and independent employee may appear to have difficulty making decisions or may start constantly seeking approval and reassurance about their work. The earlier you spot the signs, the sooner you can offer support and encourage the person to get help.
Don’t dodge the issue
There’s an understandable tendency for people to tiptoe around a work colleague who may be showing signs of mental ill-health. People are worried that raising the issue could make things worse – or that their colleague might break down in tears and they won’t know how to handle it.
There is nothing wrong in expressing concern and asking someone if they are okay. A sympathetic enquiry can sometimes ‘open the door’ and give people an opportunity to talk about any problems they may be experiencing. It is, of course, not for the manager to try and ‘diagnose’ the problem and give advice – but once the issue is out in the open, it makes it much easier for management to work in partnership with HR to support the employee in getting the right help and advice.
Provide reassurance and resources
There is still a great deal of stigma surrounding mental health, a real lack of understanding of what it is, and how it should be managed in the workplace. People are often reluctant to open up to their manager for fear it could affect their job or invite ridicule.
It’s important for both HR and managers to improve their knowledge so they can take a positive approach to supporting people and helping them get back to work. It’s about listening non-judgementally and reassuring people that you will be supportive and will give them as much time as they need to get better. Utilise your HR software portals to provide information (not advice) and encourage the person to seek help via your EAP (Employee Assistance Programme) if you have one, or by signposting them to other sources of support.
Make sure people are clear about the procedures for reporting sickness absence, and help them with the practicalities if needed so that it doesn’t become an added strain. It goes without saying that you need to respect and maintain confidentiality.
Recognise that everyone is different
Don’t assume that everyone’s path to recovery will be the same. People will vary widely in the treatment they need, the time it takes them to recover and the level of support they require to make a successful return to work.
People are generally their own best judge of what they need when it comes to getting back to work, so listen to what they say, continue to provide reassurance, and keep the lines of communication open. Having a single point of contact – so they have someone to turn to if they need reassurance or further support – can be helpful.
Plan for a successful return to work
Coming back to work can be a daunting experience for someone who has experienced a mental health problem. How they will cope on their first day back is often their biggest fear. And remember that ‘coming back’ might look different depending on whether they will be working from home or on site.
Work closely with the individual to plan for their return. Be as flexible as possible, accommodating a phased return if needed, and give them the time and space to manage their first few days and weeks back to work in a way that is appropriate for them. Be open to discussing variations to working arrangements – such as flexible working or job sharing – to help ensure people are able to achieve an appropriate balance and maintain their wellbeing.
Advice and support for employers and employees is available from a number of well-recognised charities (see examples below).
Read what the Cezanne HR team does to maintain good mental health: Mental Health Awareness Week at Cezanne HR