Helping Colleagues with Mental Health Troubles

Jul 2, 2021

Posted on 2nd July 2021 at 15:36

From Our What’sUp? Workshop 30 June 2021

Good and poor mental health has been and continues to be a major topic of discussion, in all contexts, and the stigma surrounding the subject is gradually lifting. The workplace is an environment where many people spend a significant proportion of their days, and sometimes without much control over their circumstances, so it’s important to be aware that mental health issues will come to work.
The days of employees and colleagues being treated as just functional machines are (hopefully) on the way out. When people are treated well and fairly, this has a not-insignificant effect on the bottom line in avoiding lost days through ill health, recruitment costs, re-training and the boost to productivity.
A number of employers have trained some of their staff in Mental Health First Aid, but what can the rest of us do to help?
As with any other problem, the trick is to spot it. When a piece of equipment is malfunctioning, we can spot the effect on quality, or change in noise etc and take action. If a person arrives at work with a physical injury, we see it and there’s a natural response to talk about it. However, a mental health problem is likely to be hidden from sight and the sufferer is less likely to share, so we need to become more observant and be detectives.
We all have days when we’re not in the mood to be sociable, or are seen to be grumpy, or are distracted, or prone to making mistakes. There are even days when we might be tearful or anxious.
Hopefully, those are few and far between, but we’re all human, and we all have our own share of varying emotions, moods and behaviours.
However, when this becomes a consistent or frequent response, it should raise alarm bells.
Most of us know what feeling good is like in ourselves and so we recognise when that situation changes and becomes abnormal. We can usually reason this out and maybe explain our own behaviour to colleagues, so they understand.
But when someone becomes overwhelmed, what if they’re not able to articulate what they’re feeling? How many people actually know how to deal with it?
Or even make an attempt to?
The Listening Skill
As a colleague or co-worker, you probably have an idea of what a co-worker’s “normal” is. Maybe ‘Phil’ in stores always arrives in a foul mood, but then becomes more co-operative once he’s had his first three coffees, but that’s his normality – honest!
First suggestion is to enquire “How are you?”
We often use this as a throwaway greeting rather than a genuine question, so a response such as “Fine”, or “OK” is often received. However, we should mean what we say if we’re concerned about our colleague:
“No, how ARE you?”
But, be prepared for an honest response at this stage and be ready to stay the course, as this might be the first or the one interaction that your colleague needs to be able to offload and share their woes and concerns, which may equally be home-based, work-based or just personal.
As in MHFA guidance, the best thing to do is just listen – and be very focused about listening. It helps to be empathetic, but offering up your own advice, examples of similar experiences or a viewpoint of how it looks to you, is unlikely to be helpful.
This conversation might be the chance to break the cycle of self-doubt, anxiety or stress, but it lets your colleague know that they’re not alone, and that brings us to another point: Remote Working.Unless everything is based on an individual personal service, then it’s good to refer to your company’s activities in the plural. Same values, but just shared between everyone in the business. Saying “we” also feels good and reminds you that you’re not alone in the business.
Emerging from Isolation
Since March 2020, the level of remote and home working increased for many people – particularly office-based jobs – and likewise the furlough scheme caused a large tranche of others to not be at their workplace.
Many people who have spent more than 8 hours a day in a workplace, and some further time travelling there, will have been starved of in-person contact in an environment where everyone shares common aims and personal interaction (aka office cooler gossip) doesn’t need meticulous planning. That has raised the level of feeling isolated and excluded.
Meanwhile relationships between colleagues become distorted through isolation. With less visual cues and greater reliance on impersonal communication, previously difficult connections may have become toxic or avoided. Conflicts then take on a whole new energy for themselves.
The work environment has significantly changed, so all colleagues must be respectful of the additional stresses that returning co-workers might experience.If one person in that relationship suddenly leaves, or becomes ill, or there are unexpected changes, then it’s difficult to create a transition.
The simplest approach is to tell the client the reasons (without demonstrating if there was any animosity), and find out why that client liked the person. This will help you to decide who might step up, and you can arm them with certain expectations from the client.
Safe Place, Safe Time
Not every cause of poor mental health will be spotted by the proactive employer and there is a need for the employee to raise the issue themselves. However, unless there is a safe location with a trusted and empathetic person at a suitable time, then these conversations are going to be very difficult to have.
Collaring the MD in the middle of a factory tour for local councillors, whilst next to a 10-tonne press is unlikely to be the most sympathetic of environments! Creating a location away from prying eyes and the ability to schedule a time with your line manager, HR or a trusted friend and having a plan in place so information could be fed back if needed or wanted.
Some companies have scheduled check-in or welfare calls, but these are a poor substitute for the spurious discussions that crop up in the workplace and can be quite regimented. With remote working likely to be with us for some time, team colleagues should take the opportunity to make contact with each other on a regular basis, or maybe schedule in a mid-morning break-out chat for the whole team – combining online and in-person – but this should never be the only opportunity provided.
Plan it. And Do it!
Many people are now far more aware of mental health, and during the recruitment process, a company that has a robust policy in place demonstrates some thought has been taken over how to deal with mental health issues, which is a significant attraction. The policy should also include some contact details for organisations that can provide more active help.
However, policies alone are not enough and people need to know what the plan is.
When values are shared across the staff, the ethos of mutual support often follows too.
No-one’s Immune
As with physical injury, anyone from the lowest paid to the highest paid in an organisation can suffer from mental health problems. It stands to reason that there should be no hierarchy to helping each other, so next time you think the boss is looking down, ask them if they’re OK.