In an article for the Sunday Times, David Baddiel once wrote “It’s not soft to say you’re depressed. It’s hard as hell.”. Whilst mental health issues can be among some of the most disruptive, they can also be the hardest to talk about, particularly in the workplace. Partly because of the view that personal issues should be left outside the door when you go to work, and partly down to us Brits having a ‘stiff upper lip,’ issues like stress, depression and anxiety are seldom talked about or dealt with at work, unless someone blows up or has a breakdown. Often these issues will go unnoticed and many won’t notice them as easily as they would more visible problems.
According to the Mental Health Foundation around ‘12 million adults in the UK see their GP with mental health problems each year. Most of these suffer from anxiety and depression and much of this is stress-related’. This is no small number when you consider there are roughly 42 million adults of working age in the UK (ONS, 2015). Add to that the fact that the leading cause of death for men aged 20-34 is suicide, it’s a pretty stark picture. And definitely something worth talking about.
In a work context, 13.3 million working days are lost every year due to stress, depression and anxiety in the UK alone. You’ve probably experienced the impacts of these conditions in your workplaces before, and you may have even had to deal with members of your team who have been through them. This article aims to give you a few pointers and tips on how best to deal with mental health issues at work.
- Try to notice patterns if someone in your team is acting unusually: Stress situations release the chemicals in our body that govern our ‘fight or flight’ reactions. Over time these chemicals can wear the body out and cause issues such as headaches, nausea and indigestion. These stress situations can also cause people to change emotionally, causing them to become withdrawn and distant, or sometimes tense and angry, and pretty much anywhere in between. At work it’s often easy to see these behaviours as a lapse in performance and something that should be clamped down on or, more often, left alone unless they go completely off the rails. Whilst it can be a temporary dip in performance and no more, it’s worth paying attention to these changes as they can be pointers to the fact that someone is going through a tough time and may need some support.
- Don’t tell them to cheer up: Unlike sadness which is a temporary feeling, often linked to an event or bad situation, depression can often be a general feeling that the person cannot shake, and often cannot tie to a particular event or issue that they can fix. Many people would love to put a smile on and feel better. But unfortunately it doesn’t work that way in practice, so if someone confides in you they they are stressed or depressed, try and avoid making light of it or making it seem trivial. Another trap to avoid is to assume that two people will suffer in the same way. If you have a friend who had depression and got over it by taking up a hobby, and you meet someone else with depression, the instinct will be to launch into the story to try and help that person out. In reality the best thing you can do is listen to them and take the time to understand how you can help them.
- Consider getting external help: Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are a great way to offer support to your staff. They will often come in the form of a telephone helpline and/or website with the option of telephone and face-to-face counselling. There are companies that provide these services and they often aren’t too expensive. And as a bonus, some schemes will offer you additional services such as employment law or tax advice. If someone is seriously affected and taking time off work you can also look at setting up occupational health referrals, whereby you will pay a health professional to meet with the employee and make an assessment about how best to deal with the employee. Health insurers like BUPA and other employee wellbeing companies can help set these up for a fee. Importantly with both of these suggestions, if you end up further down the road with a dismissal or resignation related to mental health issues, getting and expert medical opinion and offering staff an EAP will also show to a tribunal that you have supported your team and that you have gone a fair way to meet your ‘duty of care’ as an employer.
- Don’t be afraid to deal with it: This point comes back to the opening paragraphs of this article. Mental health issues are generally shied away from at work because of a lack of understanding and a bit of fear of doing the wrong thing. If someone is showing signs of stress or depression, listen to them and try to understand what they are going through. If they’re having trouble dealing with it by themselves, offer support if you can. But if they go off sick or start misbehaving at work, deal with it as you would with any other employee. Leaving someone without any contact for months for fear of saying the wrong thing could do more harm than getting on the phone and checking that they’re speaking to people and dealing with it. Equally, letting them get away with rudeness to colleagues or being distant and withdrawn can send the wrong signal that that behaviour is accepted. Obviously try and be your most tactful, but dealing with the issues is always better than leaving them to drag on for months.
The build up to the half year and the added pressure it brings can make this time of year particularly difficult for those with mental health issues. So keep a watchful eye over your team over the next few weeks and make sure no one’s suffering in silence.
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Photo Credit: alone by Georgie Pauwels