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How to spot the signs of stress and mental ill-health at work

Looking after the mental health of your workers means being able to spot signs they are struggling. Find out more from the experts at Employment Solutions.

One of the core responsibilities employers have to their staff is protecting their health and well-being. The COVID-19 pandemic has made safeguarding the physical wellness of workers a top priority - but it is vital to ensure that their mental health is also being looked after.

Given the unique stresses that many people across the country have and still are experiencing, it has never been more vital for managers to look for signs of mental ill-health among their workers. Only by recognising these signs will companies be able to provide colleagues with the support they need to relieve some of the mental pressures they may be experiencing.

Here, the team at Employment Solutions share some key indicators to watch out for to identify members of your team who may need your help and support.

Changes in working habits and performance

As a manager, changes to an employee’s working habits, output and productivity may well be the first thing you notice. A sudden dropoff in the quality or quantity of a colleague’s work will always be something you will be looking out for and is likely to be something you can measure using concrete metrics.

For example, you may notice a sudden increase in the number of mistakes made by a staff member or a decline in the amount of work they are able to complete. You may also see a previously punctual colleague become increasingly tardy or have to work longer hours to complete their allocated tasks.

When this happens, it is vital not to immediately assume this is simply a matter of incompetence or lack of discipline. By speaking to the worker, you will be able to get to the bottom of what is preventing them from reaching their usual standards.

Changes in physical appearance, grooming and body language

Although most modern businesses are less controlling about how staff wish to present themselves aesthetically than was once the case, it is still important to pay attention to the physical appearance of your workers to get a measure of their attitude and mental outlook.

If a colleague is struggling with mental health issues, this is often reflected by changes in their appearance and demeanour. They may start showing up for work looking unkempt and ungroomed or appearing tired and lethargic; you may also see changes in their body language, becoming more withdrawn, fidgety or distracted. When this is the case, it could be a sign that the person is struggling to cope with something.

Increased absenteeism

Staff should always be encouraged to make full use of their holiday time and to take time away from work when it is necessary for their health. However, at the same time, a sudden change in a person’s approach to absences from work can be an indicator of their mental health.

Suppose an employee suddenly starts taking multiple days of annual leave or sickness absence in close succession without any clear explanation. In that case, it may be worth finding out whether they are having any difficulties. There may be a more mundane explanation for their behaviour change, but it is better to find out for sure than to leave a colleague in need without essential support.

Mood swings and signs of increased stress and anxiety

When you have worked with a colleague for some time, you will be able to form a reliable picture of their personality and typical behaviour. As such, those closest to them will be well-placed to notice any signs that they are experiencing emotional stress and instability.

This may manifest through emotionally volatile behaviour, with extreme mood swings between frantic highs and depressive lows. They may also suddenly become prone to emotional outbursts and short tempers or constantly appear under stress, reacting to everyday pressure with increased worry and anxiety.

Of course, it is natural for most people to experience the occasional good or bad day or be prone to an uncharacteristic spike in stress from time to time, but when this becomes a pattern, it may be time to take action.

What should you do next?

If you have observed any of these signs of mental ill-health in any of your employees, it is important to think about what you should do next. Because every person is different, this also means that there is no one-size-fits-all solution or approach that will be effective in 100% of cases.

As such, the best step to take is to create opportunities for anyone struggling with mental health issues to speak to a superior or a designated mental health champion within the team. This should never be mandatory, but you should do all you can to make it clear to those affected that they can arrange a private, confidential conversation about what is troubling them at any time.

Suppose you are dealing with an employee who is having difficulties with their mental health. In that case, you should make it clear that you are there to support them and that they can speak freely about anything they are experiencing in or outside of work that is making it difficult to do their job.

If they choose to confide in you, you can then listen to their problems with a compassionate, constructive approach and determine what kind of special support measures you might be able to offer to make their lives easier. Whether this takes the form of paid leave, adjustments to their job role or some other method, you will be able to work with the staff member in question to find a solution that works for them.

You can read more about The Mental Health Foundation and the fantastic work that they do here.