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:

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:

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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