How to approach an employee who may have poor mental health during the coronavirus lockdown

Supporting a mentally healthy workplace has always been an important part of being a manager and leader – even before the COVID-19 pandemic one in five Australians experienced mental ill-health every year.

With the coronavirus pandemic creating a high level of uncertainty, it’s likely to be making existing anxiety and depression challenges for staff and volunteers even worse.

Given that mentally healthy employees can make a significant difference to your organisation’s outcomes and client experiences, understanding how to support people experiencing mental health issues is a pivotal part of helping to guide your team through these challenging times.

So what are the signs that a staff member might be going through a mental health challenge? And as a manager, what can do you to support them through it?

That’s something Marian Spencer knows better than most. As the Head of Operations People and Culture at the Black Dog Institute, Spencer has a unique insight into this very topic – and shared her best tips with us.

Mental health and the workplace

We spend a large proportion of our lives working, so it stands to reason that our workplaces can wield a big influence over our mental health. With many NFP teams having transitioned to remote working recently, the line between work and home life may become even more blurred.

Adding to these challenges is the potential impacts of the physical distancing restrictions, as some employees experience feelings of isolation or find it more difficult to remain connected to their support networks.

It’s for these very reasons Spencer says workplaces have a responsibility to ensuring the psychological safety of their staff.

“The role of a workplace is to prevent and intervene early whenever possible to avoid crisis situations,” she says.

“Workplaces should aim to create a culture in which disclosure and help seeking are welcomed and supported.

“A lot of mental health issues are exacerbated or even caused by issues at work – not all, obviously – but if you can create a psychologically safe workplace you will minimise the risk of employees becoming unwell.”

To help facilitate this, Spencer says a strong mental health and wellbeing policy is a must-have for every NFP – just like you might have an occupational health policy.

“The policy should offer strategies for prevention and early intervention, as well as outline what sort of reasonable adjustments can be made to help people remain connected to work when they’re unwell, like flexible hours,” she says.

That’s because, unlike physical illness, many people cope better when they stay connected and in the workplace – rather than stopping work which may lead to feeling more isolated.

(Here’s a sample policy created by the NSW Mental Health Coordinating Council).

Spencer adds that having a strategy of employee health and wellbeing that fosters and encourages good self-care is critical, especially in a time of crisis like we’re going through now.

“We need to implement initiatives at the organisational level to build resilience and provide relevant training, but we should also encourage people to look after themselves,” she says.

Encouraging staff to have a self-care plan in which they acknowledge what they need to keep themselves well and resilient in order to do their job and live their lives is a great way to do this.”

Removing the stigma

The stigma around mental health issues is often why people don’t come forward and end up suffering in silence.

In fact, around three out of every five people who struggle with mental illness never seek help – a figure that jumps to 72 percent among men.

So what can you do help to remove the stigma from mental health issues – and subsequently open the door to disclosure – in your workplace?

Spencer has a simple answer: just talk about it, as much as possible.

“Get the information out there – share posts, advertise your employee assistance program (EAP) and encourage disclosure,” she says.

“It’s also important to provide information on mental health literacy – what is depression? What is anxiety? What is an illness?

If you’re still working from an office, a great approach would be to “have it in newsletters, have it on noticeboards. Talk about it in the same way you might talk about work health and physical safety.”

With many teams working from home at this time, it’s important to find more ways to share this information. There are many digital replacements for the posters in the lunchroom for example:

  • Share posts on Slack,
  • Add mental health check-ins to the agenda of 1:1 meetings, and
  • Remind people about EAP services at the end of your team-wide Zoom calls.

Spencer adds that training managers in mental health literacy is critical to both addressing the stigma and encouraging people to ask for help.

“If managers are trained in mental health first aid or they have good levels of mental health literacy – and it’s talked about in the workplace – people find it easier to disclose what’s happening with them,” she says.

“Then it makes it much easier to avoid a mental health crisis.”

Signs of crisis

So what should you look out for? What are the signs a person is experiencing a mental health crisis?

The answer isn’t necessarily prescriptive, Spencer says.

“Everybody’s really different – people are so varied and diverse,” she says.

But there are some key signs you can be on alert for, all of which Spencer sums up as unexplained changes in behaviour.

“Things like tiredness, lateness, emotional outbursts, mood changes, weight gain, weight loss, absenteeism – if they’re not symptomatic of that person’s usual behaviour,” she says.

Spencer also flags changes to performance as a loud alarm bell, going so far as to say that any significant change in a staff member’s performance should be met with concern for their mental wellbeing.

“Whenever you’re faced with any sort of performance issue in the workplace – when someone who has performed well begins to perform poorly – the discussion should always start with a check-in as to how the person is and if there’s actually something going on with them that’s causing this,” she says.

Other signs to look out for include withdrawal – like when somebody who might have had lunch in the staffroom every day suddenly isn’t staying socially connected – a sudden difficulty meeting deadlines, and the inability to accept constructive and well-delivered feedback.

Some of these may be tricky to spot given there are already differences in how your team adjusts and interacts in a remote set-up, but this just means it’s even more important to watch out for the signs.

Spencer also cautions that sometimes there are no signs at all – highlighting the need for strong mental health policy and literacy.

What to do if you suspect a staff member needs help

It’s one thing to recognise the signs of mental illness in a staff member. But how do you actually take the next step and approach them with the offer of support?

For Spencer, the answer is simple: start a conversation with great tact, compassion and at the right time.

“Take a genuine interest in peoples lives and their health without being intrusive,” she says.

“Confidentiality and privacy are really important – you can’t make people disclose but you can give them easy opportunities to do so.

“Ask if the person is happy to talk to you about it – it might be that they would find it easier to talk to someone else. It’s important to identify the best person for the person to actually talk to, and find the right time to talk in a private place.”

Being able to find a private place shouldn’t be assumed even when working from home, especially when housemates or family members may occupy the same space. While it’s not recommended to set up your home office in the bedroom, this may be a better place to suggest to hold these types of calls. Alternatively, suggest a walking meeting which can provide some much-needed privacy.

It’s also critical to frame your approach in a way that’s compassionate and supportive – not accusatory or judgmental.

“For instance, you’d want to say something like, ‘I’ve noticed you haven’t been able to get to (or log onto) meetings on time for the last few weeks; is everything OK?’ rather than ‘Why aren’t you getting to meetings on time? We need you there by nine,’” Spencer says.

As a manager, it’s critical you have a strong understanding of both how to discern potential mental health crises and how act on them – for the good of your staff and your organisation as a whole. For more information on managing staff mental health, check out the Black Dog Institute’s Workplace Mental Health Toolkit or visit Heads Up.

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