In my travels to various areas of the province to deliver Mental Health First Aid workshops, one question I am frequently asked is how to identify and support an employee who is struggling with a mental illness. Ultimately, the sooner this concern is addressed, the better the outcome.
Quite often, our personal struggles are not because of one or even two stressors. Frequently it is a compilation of several things at once—both at home and work. It seems like we all get to that point in life where we are trying to juggle several things simultaneously—kids, aging parents, career expectations, our own health concerns, deadlines at work—the list can feel endless.
As all you wellness champions know and have probably experienced yourselves, sometimes it’s tough to keep the thoughts of what’s going on in your personal life separate from what you’re doing at work and this holds true for all of your colleagues too. Do we reach out and talk about it? Not always. Of course not everyone who feels stress will be mentally ill, but sometimes the stigma of mental illness—especially when the perception is that diagnosis means you are no longer competent—keeps a lot of people suffering in silence.
What Could Mental Illness in the Workplace Look Like?
It can vary from person to person, so it’s important to note specific changes in your co-workers that aren’t consistent with past behaviour or performance at work. Examples of this may include:
- Increased sick time or coming in late more often
- Excessive anger or hostility
- Complaints of sleep disturbance (too little or too much sleep)
- Missing deadlines
- Withdrawing from work gatherings or avoiding the staff room
- Forgetfulness or inability to make simple decisions
- Jokes or talks about suicide
How do we Help?
Reach out! Ask your colleague what’s going on. Express your concern and tell them you’ve noticed differences in their appearance or work habits. Ask if they’re OK. Offer to help. Don’t worry that you’re not educated enough to discuss mental health or feel you have to be armed with a plethora of resources to provide them—just be there to listen. And when they’re done talking, listen some more. If they are struggling here are some ways to help:
- Resist making any judgments and don’t jump to conclusions about what you think is going on in their lives.
- Avoid giving advice. Most people don’t want you to solve their problems, they just want someone to listen to them.
- Encourage them to take breaks throughout the workday.
- Suggest they contact their Employee Family Assistance Provider or Human Resources for more avenues of support.
- Respect confidentiality if a co-worker has confided in you.
And at the same time, remember to look after yourself. Don’t allow yourself to become a co-worker’s “therapist” and have your days filled up with discussions about their problems. Be there for support but don’t forget to protect your own well-being at the same time.
Mental Health Matters
These are just a few ideas you can share with your teams around bolstering mental health supports in the workplace. Mental Health Week is just around the corner and it's another great opportunity to set up time to talk with your colleagues, host a learning session and provide resources about how to create a safe and supportive work environment for everyone.