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Column: 7 signs to alert employers a colleague is experiencing difficulties

Employers play a key role in tackling mental health writes Dr Kara McGann, who says in these tough economic times managers need to be pro-active and aware of the issues.

Kara McGann

MENTAL HEALTH REMAINS an area that many people do not understand or may fear. As a result, it is not talked about, particularly in the workplace. And yet, one in five people of working age experiences a mental health problem, such as anxiety or depression.

Problems with mental health can occur in any individual, regardless of their job, gender, age or social background. For some, this may be a mild and temporary experience while for others it may be more severe or long-term. Importantly, only 1 in 100 people experience the more severe conditions while the vast majority of problems are manageable with treatment by a GP or counsellor. So why are we so reluctant to talk about an issue that affects so many of us?

Stigma

The See Change survey, the national stigma reduction partnership, found that 56 per cent of respondents said they would not want people to know if they were having mental health problems, with 28 per cent delaying seeking treatment due to the fear of others finding out. A further 57 per cent believed that being open about a mental health problem at work would have a negative impact on their job and career prospects, while 47 per cent believed it would affect their relationships with colleagues.

As a result, mental health disorders often go unrecognised and untreated — not only damaging an individual’s health and career, but also reducing productivity at work.

Companies have become more aware of the need to put the right supports in place to promote well-being. A recent IBEC survey of HR management practices found that over one-third of respondents had engaged in employee health screening in the twelve months preceding the survey. Almost one in five had a stress management campaign and just over one in ten had held a mental well-being campaign.

While this is a positive trend, much more needs to be done. IBEC’s Mental Health and Wellbeing: A Line Manager’s Guide provides employers and particularly line managers, with some of the tools necessary to respond appropriately and support their employees in a practical manner.

Early and consistent efforts by employers to acknowledge and support their employees can go a long way towards building a culture that is conducive to a healthy workplace. This is in everyone’s interest.

Warning signs

Employers have a key role to play. Very often employees experiencing mental health problems are reluctant to seek help initially and the problem goes unchecked. There are a number of key signs that can help alert you to a colleague experiencing difficulties:

  • Changes in a person’s usual behaviour
  • Poor performance
  • Tiredness
  • Increased absence
  • Previously punctual employees turning up late
  • Noticeable increase in alcohol consumption or smoking
  • Tearfulness

It might be the case that certain tasks, work environments or times of the day are associated with people experiencing difficulty. Similarly, if an individual is having frequent short bursts of sickness absence with a variety of reasons such as stress, back pain or no reason, there may be an underlying, if transitory, mental health problem that should be discussed.

How can you help?

Communication is essential. If you’re a manager, this can be done naturally through normal work strategy sessions, appraisals, return to work (following absence) interviews or informal chats which offer an opportunity to discuss any difficulties the employee may be having. During these chats employers should:

  • At all times, in the language used and the attention given, individuals should be treated with respect
  • Managers should remember that their behaviour will act as a model for the wider work team
  • Use open ended questions, such as ‘How are you doing at the moment?’ or ‘Is there anything we can do to help?’
  • Questions should be neutral and you should give the employee time to answer

If you have specific grounds for concerns – such as poor performance – it is important to raise this at an early stage. Again, the use of open, exploratory and non-judgemental questions can elicit to key information from employees. For example: ‘I’ve noticed you’ve sometimes been arriving late recently and wondered if there was a problem.’

Often employees who have experienced stress, anxiety or depression in the workplace need a platform to vent their emotions.

At times, empathy may be all that is needed. However, where there are serious underlying problems, the best approach is to refer them to someone trained to provide appropriate support. Many organisations have employee assistance programmes where trained counsellors provide support to employees within an agreed framework.

Regular communication

An effective manager should be able to anticipate and identify problems, dealing with them before they escalate. Taking the time to get to know your team, regular communication and meetings will enable a line manager to notice any emotional difficulties or changes that may be occurring for an employee.

Some people with mental health problems require minimal support, while others need more. Dealing with mental health can be a challenging period of time for employee and employer alike but the employee can be helped immensely through the support and assistance of their employer.

IBEC’s Mental Health and Wellbeing: A Line Manager’s Guide encourages companies to put the proper supports in place for the well being and mental health of individuals and teams. It contains information and practical advice on recruitment, well being, creating an environment for disclosure and helps managers facilitate conversations about mental health problems so that employees can stay well and in work.

Kara McGann is an executive at IBEC. National Employment Week (NEW), a forum focusing on major social and economic issues is currently taking place. Today is Mental Health and Employment Day.

Report: Irish rate of young male suicide ‘among EU’s highest’>

Read: What Stigma? Short doc looks at Ireland’s mental health>

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About the author:

Kara McGann

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