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Don’t Ignore the Warning Signs of Declining Mental Health

Oct 10, 2022
Don’t Ignore the Warning Signs of Declining Mental Health

5 minutes - enough time to switch off from work and enjoy half your lunch 🍔

We all have mental health: and at some point, all of us will experience challenges with our mental well-being. As an employer, there is a certain level of responsibility to ensure that employees feel supported. However, it’s important to note that declining mental health may not be inherently obvious. 

So, let’s look at some of the signs as well as how you can best support employees.

You can see that they’re struggling with normal day-to-day tasks

Whether it’s simply completing things on time, or you can see a physical struggle (being distracted, not being prepared for regular meetings etc) then this could be an indication that their mind is elsewhere. 

Of course, we all have “off days” or even “off weeks” - so don’t feel as though you have to be hyper-sensitive to every single change. However, if you can see that this is extending beyond a week, and there’s a decline that is becoming more and more noticeable, then you probably want to explore it. 

Performance has suddenly dipped

Not all job roles will have strict KPIs which can be measured, but most positions will have a way of looking at performance and ensuring that targets or milestones are met. A sudden dip in performance is probably one of the best ways to tell that something is wrong. 

Depending on your performance management system, it’s important to look beyond someone’s technical ability, for example completing tasks and attending meetings. Performance extends beyond this: team contribution, collaboration, working with external partners/vendors, and idea generation. 

Someone's technical performance could still be very high, but looking at performance holistically will enable you to measure it across multiple areas. 

Another element that is important to consider is the difference between someone who has healthy boundaries with their work versus someone who is underperforming versus someone with declining mental health - it is hard to tell them apart, but the latter are both issues to approach as a manager.

You notice a change in behaviour

This can be difficult if someone is still in the early stages of being in your team/organisation, however, picking up on behavioural changes can be a way to determine whether someone is struggling or their mental health is declining. 

Mental health and how we are all affected by it is multifaceted, and there isn’t a set list of behaviours to determine this. However, some that you can look for are as follows:

  • Irritability
  • Short attention span or inability to focus
  • Seeming vacant or disengaged
  • Highs and lows in emotion
A change in their eating or drinking habits

Again, this can vary largely - and this isn’t something that you should look to comment on, particularly as eating habits can be triggering if someone has suffered from an eating disorder previously (which as a by-product, impacts your mental health). However, keeping an eye on this can help you to open up a conversation and also check in on those in your team. 

Eating too much, or barely eating/withdrawing from team lunches etc could be indicative of something deeper. Additionally, drinking habits - whether this is socially at work or their demeanour in the office (regularly hungover, talking excessively about alcohol) could also indicate that someone is struggling internally. 

It’s common for those struggling with their mental health to turn to coping mechanisms (food, drugs, alcohol, and self-harm to name a few) to medicate their feelings. Again, you must approach this with caution - but changes in eating and drinking can be a secret cry for help. 

Virtually, how do you spot this?

Now, looking at declining mental health virtually can be challenging. You have the added difficulty of not seeing someone face to face, thus making it harder to read body language and how they interact in the office. 

Additionally, there is more opportunity for the individual in question to close off and block out any “interference” from an employer. The moment the laptop shuts or the meeting ends, isolation can happen very easily - let’s look at the pandemic as a key example of this.

If someone consistently wants their camera off during meetings

Turning a camera off for a couple of meetings doesn’t necessarily indicate that anything sinister is happening. However, if there is a consistent withdrawal from having their camera on during meetings, this can suggest declining mental health. 

This is nuanced, as zoom fatigue is real - something that a lot of us experienced during the pandemic. It can be understandable to have your camera off from time to time. However, for completely remote workers, there has to be an element of “face-to-face” contact. 

Opting to work from home more 

Wanting to spend less time in the office isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but a change in working habits, and opting into a more hybrid/remote model along with other factors such as a change in behaviour or performance can indicate declining mental health. Again, with other factors mentioned, this will vary from person to person and should be looked at on a case-by-case basis.  

Lack of input or idea generation

This can come under the umbrella of behavioural change or a dip in performance; however, it’s important to note that declining mental health can still leave individuals functioning highly in a work environment. 

In fact, some may still be able to maintain performance despite struggling. However, something else that you can look out for is a lack of input or idea generation. This can manifest as simply as not contributing, or appearing disengaged or indifferent in group settings - unless forced to contribute. 

How can you combat this as an employer? 
Create awareness among the team 

Whether it’s ensuring that there are resources available for all employees (or team members as a leader), or that you have points of support across the organisation, for example, mental health first-aiders - raising awareness and destigmatising talking about mental health should be paramount.

As a leader or business owner, encourage those at a senior level to practice vulnerability and lead by example. All of us have bad days and some of us will experience a decline in our mental health. Talking about it and being vulnerable will create an environment rooted in empathy, understanding - and feeling safe at work.

Make time for 1:1 contact

Some conversations are best on a one-to-one basis, and ensuring that employees have that time with the manager (or other individuals in the business) is crucial. 

Particularly if you’re running a team remotely, don’t underestimate the power of 1:1’s and how important they are. 1:1 contact can also extend beyond manager and employee - again; mental first-aiders, HR, and other seniors in the business should all work together to support employees.

And finally, know there isn’t a “magic potion” for helping those at work with declining mental health. There is only so much that you can do as an employer - but the important thing to consider is having professional support (in-house and external) so you can support employees as best as possible.

download our handbook for mental health at work

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