How to spot the signs and symptoms of mental health difficulties

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How to spot the signs and symptoms of mental health difficulties

Line managers and employers have a duty of care to staff and must help them to manage mental health issues at work.

Mental health, like your physical health, operates on a continuum. You can have a diagnosis and (with support) be well. Equally, you may become unwell for a while until you recover good mental health. Some people may experience poor mental health in response to life events and not receive a diagnosis. Some people can be very unwell but not wish to seek help or be ‘labelled’.

There are many reasons why an employee’s behaviour or performance is affected. Noticing there is a concern or hearing about concerns from others is the first step. Early recognition is key to managing mental health in the workplace effectively. Don’t forget to think about how you might do this with staff working from home.

Mental health problems can affect the way people think, feel or behave. In some cases, this can seriously limit a person’s ability to cope with day-to-day life. This can impact on relationships, work and quality of life. The crucial thing to remember is that everyone’s experience of mental health is different – two people with the same condition may have entirely different symptoms and coping mechanisms. That’s why working with people on an individual basis is so important.

Mental health conditions

You should be on the lookout for the following mental health conditions in your team:

Common problems

Anxiety and depression are the leading causes of long-term work-related ill health. These can be chronic or can be a response to external factors such as stress, grief, or significant life changes.

Less common severe mental health conditions

These conditions are less common, but you should be aware of them. These can include bipolar disorder, psychosis and schizophrenia.

Other conditions

These can include personality disorders, eating disorders and addictions.

Atypical personalities

Whilst conditions such as autism are not disorders, they are still worth discussing. There may be particular needs your employee has which you can help with. For example, creating a quiet environment with fewer stimuli.

How will I recognise if someone is stressed or experiencing poor mental health at work?

Firstly, do not wait until you see the signs. Have an open and honest conversation with your employees when they start working and at regular intervals, making it clear that they can bring up any mental health issues they might have. Being proactive in your approach will help remove the stigma of talking about this. It will help you understand any mental health difficulties and how you can best support your team.

Beyond this, there are many signs that you, or other colleagues, may notice. These may include changes in the person’s demeanour, becoming upset more easily, withdrawing from other people or not doing activities they’d done before.

Relationships between team members may be affected. Line managers need to be prepared to listen carefully to concerns raised by others about the person’s behaviour, moods or performance. They should be prepared to address concerns sensitively with the person. For more on this, read our guide on how to have this conversation.

Timekeeping, attendance, staying late at work, missing deadlines or, conversely, taking on too much work and feeling unable to say no may indicate that the manager needs to intervene.

What you see is often only the tip of the iceberg.

Some signs to look out for
  • Changes in productivity
  • Changes in social functioning
  • Changes in personality or behavior
  • Increased alcohol or drug use
  • Changes in eating and sleeping patterns
  • Change in personal appearance
  • Signs of self-harm

Think about what’s going on beneath the surface – especially for your young employees.

What if I am seriously concerned about someone I manage?

You may need to call on others for guidance, such as your own line manager, your human resources team or occupational health if you have them.

Discuss the situation with the most relevant person and ask for guidance. Ask for help if you feel that the situation is urgent.

Fortunately, it is rare that someone needs urgent mental health support at work. If you are seriously concerned, then encourage them to see a GP – or arrange for someone to go with them. In a crisis, where there is risk of harm to self or others, you may need to call the emergency services (an ambulance or the police). Paramedics are very skilled in assessing the situation.

If the person is known to mental health services, they may have a crisis card that has contact details for someone they trust who can arrange the necessary support.

A new way of working

With the advent of coronavirus, we have seen many staff now working from home. It is important to pay attention to the needs of employees working from home and for yourselves managing employees remotely.



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