Identifying mental illness in the workplace – and knowing how to help

By psychologist Angie Willcocks

Mental illness is common in Australia. In fact, 45 per cent of Australians will experience mental health problems at some point in their life.

So it’s likely that someone you work with at this very time is struggling with depression, anxiety, or another mental illness.

Recognising mental illness in the workplace is very important. Unrecognised and untreated mental illness in a work environment can contribute to reduced productivity, safety risks, more sick days, reduced job satisfaction and poor team morale.

While respecting people’s privacy in the workplace is obviously very important, I think it’s also important to foster a general workplace culture where mental illness is recognised and positively handled. We have some way to go in this area, but I’m optimistic that with more information and increased awareness, Australian workplaces will slowly but surely improve in this area.

Each and every person in a team can contribute to the changes that are needed in how organisations deal with mental illness. And team leaders and managers have an important role to play in leading the way.

The first step is acknowledging that mental illness is common in Australia, and also accepting that organisations like yours need to find a way to positively manage workers (at all levels) who have mental illness.

The second step is to start to recognise what mental illness (or heightened stress that can lead to mental illness) looks like in a work environment.

Some signs of heightened stress, anxiety or depression (sleep disturbances, appetite changes, sad feelings, headaches, tummy troubles, poor concentration and fatigue) are not obvious to other people. However, other signs are more visible. Here are some to be aware of:

  • More frequent mistakes
  • Having a ‘short fuse’
  • Taking longer than usual to do tasks
  • Looking tired or unwell
  • Dramatic weight changes
  • Overreacting to situations
  • Being extra sensitive to criticism
  • Increased alcohol intake (which might include being hungover at work or smelling of alcohol in the mornings)
  • Looking visibly sad or down
  • Not participating in workplace jokes or banter as much as usual
  • Being easily distracted by others, or perhaps distracting others more than usual
  • Appearing grumpy, irritable and generally hard to get along with
  • More frequent absences from work
  • More frequent illnesses or injuries
  • Seeming disengaged and uninterested in work tasks
  • Having a general negative attitude

Of course, many people won’t show all of these signs and not everyone who shows some of these signs will have mental illness, but they are worth bearing in mind.

When thinking about your team’s mental health, consider work-related stress as a factor, particularly if your team has tight deadlines, big work-loads, conflict within the team or there’s job insecurity in your area.

Other factors to consider are more individual and personal in nature, like marriage troubles, divorce, family illness, drug and alcohol problems or financial worries. Obviously people have a right to privacy, and you might not be aware of these issues.

How you can help

What you can do about it as a team leader or manager:

  • Do not stick your head in the sand about mental illness in the workplace. Take a positive and proactive approach. Beyond Blue has some great information if you want to learn more about how to do this.
  • Check your personal judgments about mental illness, and it they’re negative or blaming, educate yourself and get rid of the old fashioned thinking. No one chooses to have a mental illness and blaming someone for their illness is pointless and offensive.
  • Make an effort to get to know the people you work with. As a manager or team leader it’s in your interests to know what makes your team members tick.
  • If you suspect a team member is struggling, approach them and tell them what you’ve noticed. It can help to be specific about what you’ve noticed. Instead of just saying: “You seem stressed,” try something like “You look tired and down, and you’ve been struggling to meet deadlines".
  • Ask if the issues are work related or personal. If they're work related, get as many details as you can and work on problem solving within your capacity, or handball it to your manager or Human Resources department. Let your team member know you’ll do this. If it’s personal, don’t press for details. You can be helpful and supportive without knowing the ins and outs. Resist the urge to be nosy. Say something like “I don’t need to know the details but I will do what I can to help”.
  • If a team member does open up to you, NEVER breach their confidentiality by telling others in the team about it. If you need to debrief, speak to your own manager or someone from your organisation’s Employee Assistance Program.
  • Ask directly if there is anything you can do to help. Be clear about what you can and can’t do as a team leader or manager. Seek further clarification from your Human Resources Department or your own manager about what you can offer.
  • If the team member’s performance is not up to scratch, work with them to set some small goals to help get them back on track.
  • Practice being empathetic. Saying something like “I’m very sorry to hear about…” is always very appreciated, even if you can’t actually fix anything for the person.
  • Foster a culture in your team where stress can be talked about and dealt with.
  • Promote the use of services like your Employee Assistance Program and Beyond Blue.
  • Manage your own stress levels, and model good self-care.

It’s really important to remember that you DON’T have to be a counsellor or psychologist, and you are not trained to do so. It is not up to you to actually diagnose mental health problems and you shouldn’t try to solve people’s personal problems for them. Offer support and link your team member with other services as needed.

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