Responsibility towards others
Just as we all have a legal responsibility and a moral duty to take care of each other’s physical health at work, we all have a part to play in supporting the mental health of colleagues with existing issues, of those at risk, and of our workforce as a whole.
This article outlines tips to improve colleagues mental health.
We also offer an online Mental Wellbeing Course that will help your colleagues understand the key messages within this article.
Recognising the signs of poor mental health in others
It is often easier to recognise when someone else is struggling then to see it in ourselves. Think about these signs.
Is your colleague:
- unusually short-tempered?
- making uncharacteristic mistakes?
- struggling to meet deadlines?
- late for meetings and appointments when they previously kept good time?
- withdrawing from others and avoiding contact with colleagues?
Does your colleague appear:
- more tired than usual?
- distracted and/or less motivated?
- alternatively, are they suddenly energetic to the point of hyperactivity?
Any of these signs, and more, may be an indicator that your colleague is struggling.
If things progress, you might see more obvious signs of a mental health problem, such as outbursts of anger or emotion, absences from work, or not looking after their appearance as they normally would. You may see signs that they have been sleeping less or perhaps drinking more in the evening.
The following tips to improve colleagues mental health in this article may help.
1. Talking to a colleague
Staff in a mentally healthy workplace with strong collegiate connections are more likely to recognise signs of possible struggle in others.
However, wherever your organisation is in their journey towards becoming mentally healthy, if you observe a change in a colleague’s behaviour, appearance, attitude and/or demeanour that concerns you, it’s important that you know how to respond.
The first step in offering support is opening up a conversation. It might seem daunting, you might not even be certain there is something wrong, just an instinct that there might be. You may be worried about causing offence or upsetting your colleague, but it is better to offer support where none is needed than not to offer support at all.
It would probably be helpful to find a quiet place, at a time when your colleague will not feel rushed. Open up the conversation by simply asking them how they are. Reassure your colleague that they can talk to you if they need to.
Talking about how they are feeling with you can in turn help them feel more relaxed about talking with their line manager, for example if they feel their workload is spiralling out of control. It may be useful to have information to hand, such as helpline numbers or web links, to pass on straight way.
If they don’t want to talk about things, respect their wishes. You have still let them know you care, and that you’re there for them when they feel able to talk.
2. Listening to a colleague
If your colleague does open up to you, it is vital that you show them that you are actively listening. This demonstrates that you are present and engaged, and that you value what your colleague is saying.
3. Active listening involves:
- eye contact (unless the person you are talking to doesn’t seem comfortable with that)
- being physically open – open arms and turning slightly towards the speaker
- providing affirmations – by acknowledging what’s being said through appropriate nods and gestures, and repeating what the speaker said to check you have heard and understood correctly
- asking direct and appropriate questions – but do not probe for more details than your colleague is comfortable giving
- recapping what was discussed and agreed at the end of the conversation and making sure you commit to anything you say you will do.
Your role in the conversation is to reassure and encourage, without showing signs of surprise or judgement. Try to avoid immediately suggesting possible solutions to problems. Instead, ask your colleague what they want to happen. While they might welcome suggestions from you, they may simply need to get things off their chest.
See the Communication Skills course for more information.
4. Concerns for a colleague’s safety
If you are concerned that your colleague might be having suicidal thoughts, the best thing you can do is ask them directly and plainly ‘Have you had thoughts of suicide?’.
If your colleague says that, yes, they are feeling suicidal or can’t go on, or if you suspect they are thinking of taking their own life, it is vital you encourage them to get help, for example by contacting the Samaritans for free immediately on 116 123. You could also help them to call their doctor or a close friend.
If you are concerned for your colleague’s immediate safety, or they tell you that they plan to end their life, you can call 999 and ask for the police or take them to an A&E Department.
5. Supporting a return to work
While it is important to know how to respond, should you have immediate concerns for a colleague’s safety, the majority of instances will not require such high-level support. It may be that your colleague is experiencing the kind of mental wellbeing challenges that many of us experience at one point or another and talking to you and/or their line manager may be enough to identify strategies to support them through.
However, even if the issue is more deep-rooted, most people who develop mental health problems recover well, with the right support.
Should your colleague require time off work, keeping in touch with them and letting them know you are there for them can help alleviate any anxiety around returning to work. You could ask them what they would like their other colleagues to be told regarding their absence. It might be a positive thing to invite them to any social events, even if they decline. Give them a call a couple of days before they are due to return to check in and see if there is anything you can do. Be there for them on their return. Ask them if you can do anything to support them and help them settle back into the working routine.
6. Ongoing support
An episode of mental ill-health may be a one-off or a person might suffer from mental health problems that are longer term or episodic. You can support a colleague with a mental health problem by helping them identify strategies to recover, helping them stay well and ensuring that the work environment is safe, supportive and free from discrimination.
You can continue to support your colleague in the longer time by checking in with them informally, offering to mentor them or simply continuing to connect with them as a friendly support.
The most important thing about supporting a colleague with their mental wellbeing is never to make assumptions and always to ask. They, after all, are the best expert when it comes to their own needs.
7. Wellbeing and management
Good mental wellbeing at work and good management go hand in hand. Positively managing mental health underpins good employee engagement and benefits everyone. Achieving a mentally healthy workplace requires a leadership team who promote mental wellbeing and understand how to support staff facing mental health challenges.
The Mental Health Foundation have set out the following checklist14 to support employers in nurturing a mentally healthy workplace. Reflect on how well your organisation:
- Values mental health and wellbeing as core assets
- Supports the development of compassionate and effective line management relationships
- Addresses discrimination
Values the diversity and transferable skills that lived experience of mental health problems bring and supports disclosure
8. How we treat people matters
For many people, the way they are treated by their line manager, indeed the behaviour of all the leaders in the organisation, makes an enormous difference to how they feel about themselves and their work, and is central to their mental wellbeing.
If you are a line manager, it is important that you reflect on how you communicate and interact with your team and that you lead by example. Do you check in with your team regularly? Give praise for a job well done? Manage any issues with fairness and integrity? Are you alert to potential discrimination or prejudice and do you understand how to respond appropriately?
Feeling valued and supported by a manager can help staff deal with all kinds of difficulties, including mental health problems that might otherwise impair their performance. Supporting staff in monitoring their workload, setting reasonable targets, and providing opportunities for professional development all helps develop a healthy and productive team. As does promoting a supportive culture where mental wellbeing can be discussed openly.
Relationships are everything. Again, the emphasises the importance of connection.
9. Supporting mental wellbeing as a manager
In most cases, line managers provide the first official contact between the employer and an employee who is experiencing mental health challenges. A line manager that is supportive, approachable and responsive encourages a working environment where employees have the confidence to be open and seek help should they require it.
In addition to responding appropriately to staff who seek support, an effective manager should also take a proactive approach to looking out for their team’s welfare, this includes their mental wellbeing.
Line managers can help ensure that mental health problems are identified early. Yet, concerningly, a 2018 survey carried out by mental health charity Mind found that only 42% of employees feel their line managers would be able to spot the signs of poor mental health in their staff13.
It is vital that managers receive appropriate training to support them in recognising the signs that an employee may be struggling with their mental wellbeing. Training should also develop their understanding of what might underpin mental health problems in their teams. For example, is there something in their own management approach that is contributing to the problem? If the problem is work-based, line managers can then act to find a solution. If the problem stems from the employee’s personal life, then a line manager should know where to refer them for professional support. A mental health problem is more likely to be tackled – and resolved – if the manager is involved in the solution.
10. Training and support for managers
It is vital that managers have the knowledge and skills required to best support their team’s mental wellbeing. In addition to the professional qualities and support strategies already discussed during this course, there are several areas that line managers should be particularly aware of when supporting staff with mental health challenges. These include:
- Managing absence and return to work
- Performance management and appraisal
- Leading during change
An audit of management capabilities will help identify a line manager’s strengths and areas for development, which should then inform a tailored professional development plan. It might be appropriate to undertake specific management training on supporting employee mental health. There are also a range of support materials produced by specialist mental health organisations. We outline some of these in the final section of this course.
It should also be noted that any staff member can experience stress or mental health problems regardless of their seniority or experience, so it is important that managers themselves are able to access support, particularly if they manage someone with a mental health problem.
T: 0131 661 8253 E: [email protected]
1 World Health Organization (1948) Preamble to the Constitution of WHO as adopted by the International Health Conference, New York, 19 June - 22 July 1946.
2 World Health Organization (2018) Mental health: strengthening our response.
3 Farmer, P. and Stevenson, D. (2017) Thriving at Work: A review of mental health and employers.
4 World Health Organization (2020) Mental Health in the Workplace.
5 Populus poll commissioned by mental health charity Mind (2013).
6 Mind (2018) Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Index 2017/18 - Key insights.
7 nef (the new economics foundation) (2008) Five Ways to Wellbeing: report presented to the Foresight Project on communicating the evidence base for improving people’s wellbeing.
8 Jenkins, R., Meltzer, H., Jones, P., Brugha, T. and Bebbington, P. (2008) Mental health and ill health challenge report. London: Foresight.
9 Edmunds, S., Biggs, H. and Goldie, I. (2013) Let’s Get Physical: The impact of physical activity on wellbeing.London: Mental Health Foundation.
10 NHS (2018) Benefits of Exercise.
11 Hilton, L. et al. (2019) Mindfulness meditation for workplace wellness: An evidence map.
12 Kirkwood, T. et al. (2008) Mental capital through life Challenge Report. London: Foresight Mental Capital and Wellbeing Project.
13 Jordan, H. (2019) ‘The Line Manager’s Role in Mental Wellbeing’, HR Magazine.
14 Mental Health Foundation (2017) Foundation How to Support Mental Health at Work.