Helping your employees with their mental health: A guide

One in six British workers experiences work-related mental health problems, such as anxiety (source: mind.org.uk).  That’s a worryingly high figure of 17%, and that number is on the rise.  This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, so let’s take a look at why the figure is so high and as employers, how do we recognise the signs – and what can we do?

Group of People Holding Hands Together

Work-related anxiety can be down to a number of factors:

  • Long working hours
  • Low wages
  • Workplace stress
  • Hostile or poor relationships with colleagues
  • Demanding or difficult boss
  • Lack of empowerment
  • Injustice

People tend to hide their anxiety and pretend everything is fine, which can make it difficult for an employer to identify.  The table below should give you an insight into how an anxious member of staff may be feeling – and how that might look to you and their colleagues:

What Anxiety Feels LikeHow Anxiety Looks to Managers and Colleaguess
Feeling tense, nervous or unable to relax; a fast, thumping or irregular heartbeat; panic attacksWithdrawal from team, isolates oneself; higher levels of absenteeism
Feeling disconnected from one’s mind or body, or the world around oneIndifference
Difficulty concentratingPutting things off, missed deadlines, accidents
Forgetfulness and trouble rememberingSeems “scattered” or absentminded; deterioration in quality of work, missed deadlines
Trouble making decisionsProcrastination, indecisiveness, slowed productivity
Trouble sleeping, or sleeping too muchLate to work, afternoon fatigue, accidents
Feelings of worthlessnessUnsure of abilities, lack of confidence
Energy loss or increased fatigueLow motivation, detached
TearfulnessInappropriate reactions, strained relationships
Weight or appetite changesChange in appearance

Remember: a general rise in anxiety before an important event such as a Board meeting is normal.  Indeed, it’s the body’s way of protecting us from danger; the fight-or-flight response allows us to react faster to emergencies.  However, if you observe prolonged signs that indicate a downward spiral, the employee may need help.

The following suggestions for managers can help reduce the likelihood of anxiety in the workplace:

  • Match employees to jobs that fit their abilities and skill set; define clear roles and set consistent boundaries.
  • Set reasonable, achievable deadlines in which staff should complete work – better still, involve employees in the planning of their workloads.
  • If you need to speak to a member of staff, do it in private – avoid reprimanding them in front of other colleagues.
  • Maintain open lines of communication so that staff can express their concerns regarding workplace issues. Encourage an honest and open work culture whereby employees do not feel too intimidated to voice their opinions and concerns.  Stress to all employees that there should be no stigma associated with mental health issues and lead by example.
  • Offer opportunities for employee training and development to reinforce motivation levels.
  • Implement detailed records of absence to enable you to identify anxiety and mental health issues more easily.
  • If a staff member suffers from an anxiety disorder, try and provide them with the additional support that they require.
  • Encourage employees to take regular breaks. Once in a while, meet them in an informal setting, such as a café, to help them unwind.
  • Find activities that promote teamwork and a feeling that “you are not alone” in the workplace.

If a member of staff is struggling, encourage them to try some of these coping strategies:

  • Maintain a healthy work-life balance. Long hours and overwork can leave anyone feeling irritable, exhausted and unable to concentrate.  Lack of sleep, obsession with work and lack of relaxation can result in anxiety disorders that can sap us of vitality and energy.  A balance between work and life creates harmony between different aspects of our lives.
  • Communicate clearly if there are any stressful jobs or situations. If the workload is too much, or work hours are too long, ask employees to communicate this clearly to resolve the issues before they trigger anxiety or stress.  Bottling up emotions or sweeping problems under the carpet will only compound anxiety issues.
  • Make time for regular exercise. Research has shown that physical activity helps us relax.
  • Get enough sleep. Lack of sleep makes us nervous, irritable and exhausted.  Sleep deprivation reduces our ability to cope with anxiety.  Just a few tips for a better night’s sleep are:
    • Get enough exercise during the day to ensure a good night’s sleep
    • One hour before bedtime, turn off all electronic devices
    • Avoid stimulants such as tobacco, alcohol, caffeine and recreational drugs
    • Practise meditation to calm the mind and centre thoughts
  • At the end of the work day, switch off physically and mentally. Don’t keep checking for messages, emails and voicemails.  Diverting our minds to other activities will help reduce anxiety regarding work and helps us move away from work-related issues.
  • Sit down and write down the things that are important to you. Prioritise your passions, hobbies and work in a way that works for you.  Mismanagement of time and neglecting your priorities is likely to result in a rise in anxiety levels.
  • If further help is needed, it’s important to consider talking to a professional.