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The Best Ways to Support a Colleague with Mental Health Issues

Posted: 18 October 2018

Everyone has bad days at work – challenging clients throwing their toys out the pram, your boss telling you that you need to step it up, an unexpected load of work getting dumped on you – once in a while you or your colleagues are bound to feel stressed. For most people, going through a tough time at work is over relatively quickly, and easily forgotten, but others may find it more difficult to depressurise and cope with these stressful periods. This is particularly true for people struggling with their mental health.

With 1 in 6 people experiencing a mental health issue (such as anxiety or depression) each week, it’s highly likely that you yourself or someone you work with may experience these problems sooner or later. For anyone suffering mental health issues, stressful and pressurised situations can trigger episodes and make things ten times harder to cope with, as can difficulties in people’s personal lives, but sometimes there’s no obvious reason for it coming on. 

Whilst it’s positive news that the stigma around mental health is improving, many sufferers are still reluctant to talk about it, often feeling the need to hide it from other people for fear of what they might think. Though there are laws in place to prevent discrimination in the workplace over mental health – the Equality Act (2010) and the Disability Discrimination Act (1995, as amended) – people still worry that being open about their mental illness may raise concerns over their competency and commitment to their job with their boss or colleagues. 

The taboo surrounding mental health often means that well-meaning people end up shying away from those who suffer with these illnesses, because they’re not sure what to say (or whether to bring it up at all), or what they can do to help the situation. If you suspect one of your co-workers to be struggling, there are things you can do to support them through difficult times, but first you need to be able to spot the warning signs.

Signs that someone’s struggling with their mental health

Mental health problems affect people differently; not every person will experience every single symptom all the time. Here’s some common tell-tale signs to watch out for in your colleagues:

Deterioration in physical appearance – looking scruffy or unkempt when they’re usually smart and well-groomed.

Becoming withdrawn – not wanting to talk to people or be involved in social activities.

Sleep problems – oversleeping and being late to work, or not being able to sleep.

Increased absence from work - when their attendance is usually good.

Lack of motivation or enthusiasm for their work - being slapdash and disorganised, overlooking mistakes.

Overindulgence – drinking more than usual. Also watch out for binge eating or a sudden lack of interest in food.

Short temper or emotional outburst – suddenly snapping at people or getting tearful.

How you can support a colleague with mental health problems

Be available to talk – Create opportunities for them to open up and share their problems, but don’t push the issue if they clearly don’t want to talk about it. Whilst talking about a mental health problem can be really helpful to some sufferers, putting their thoughts and feelings into perspective and being more self-aware, not everyone likes or benefits from talking it through. Some individuals prefer to find other outlets for their feelings, like a physical activity or something they can immerse their minds in such as reading a book, journaling or drawing.

Talk to them in private – Some people might feel embarrassed or uncomfortable if you openly discuss a problem they’re having in front of co-workers. Be sensitive and discreet, to help the person feel comfortable and show that you’re someone they can trust.

Give them the chance to be involved – Make them feel included by inviting them to social events or activities outside of work, whether that’s something with the whole team or taking a gym class together. Ask them away from other people, so that they don’t feel overly self-conscious, and if they don’t seem interested never pressurise them or try and make them feel guilty for not wanting to attend. For people suffering with anxiety, this may send their brains into an overdrive of worrying – about attending the social event, or even more so for choosing not to go and feeling like everyone will be talking about them behind their backs, wondering why they’re being such a party-pooper!

Encourage time away from their desk – Invite them to take a walk at lunch, or eat lunch away from their desk once in a while. Having a bit of physical activity and a change of scenery can help them to destress and feel more positive.

Regularly check-in with them – It doesn’t have to be a big deal; something as simple as asking how they’re doing and taking an interest in them as a person, rather than just as a colleague, can help to build a rapport and show you care.

Never belittle a mental health problem – Don’t dismiss it by saying things like ‘get over it’, ‘cheer up’ or ‘stop over-reacting’. Unless you’ve experienced anxiety or depression yourself, you can’t fully appreciate the inner battles that people face on a daily basis.

Be encouraging and supportiveReassure them by acknowledging their problems, offering friendly words and listening if they want to talk, and being compassionate towards them.

Mental illness is a serious problem that everyone will encounter during their lifetime – whether that’s experiencing it for themselves or seeing a friend, family member or co-worker suffering. It’s a tough thing to go through, especially with the added pressure of work, but by being more aware of the early warning signs and following this guidance, you might give someone suffering with mental health problems the support they need to get through it and cope with their day-to-day lives a little better.