Mental Health Week: How to spot an employee who's secretly struggling

The truth is there's a mental health crisis raging – one that's constantly talked about but less frequently dealt with

Mental Health Week: How to spot an employee who's secretly struggling

Would you know if one of your team was grappling with mental health concerns? And, if you did, how would you approach them? Thirty seven percent of Canadian employees wouldn’t tell their HR leader if they were struggling with mental health issues – with 16% of workers saying that their workplace invokes persistent feelings of depression and anxiety.

The truth is there’s a mental health crisis raging – one that’s constantly talked about but less frequently dealt with. For HR leaders, identifying employees who’re secretly struggling with psychological issues before they inevitably leave the company has become a core concern.

“Mental health is a journey, and there is a spectrum from mental health to mental illness,” Humi's director of people operations, Andrea Bartlett, told HRD. “Not only is every employee different, but employees will present challenges with their mental health in different ways, and this makes it challenging for an employer to identify one specific sign of an employee struggling with their mental health.”

With that being said, there are common behavioural shifts that may be a sign of someone struggling with a mental health issue. These behavioural shifts may include;

  • Change in communication (tone, frequency, clarity)
  • Change in engagement (in meetings, in group chats, in team activities)
  • Consistent absences
  • Overly present (presenteeism)
  • Changes in appearance (physical appearance, or surrounding workspace appearance)
  • Change in work style

Remote work’s impact on our mental decline

It would be remiss to say that our collective mental health was tip top prior to the pandemic – we know very well that employees battled on a daily basis. However, the pandemic brought with it certain changes that only intensified already existing issues. The switch to remote work and subsequent isolation, the uncertainty and fear of COVID itself, financial wellness concerns and mass layoffs led to a decline in psychological health.

In remote work, it’s even more difficult for HR leaders to identify employees who’re having a hard time. As Bartlett suggests, start by acknowledging that all employees are different – understand individual nuances before rolling out any ‘one-size-fits-all’ blanket schemes.

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“Every employee is unique, and this is true beyond just their personality type,” added Bartlett. “The uniqueness of an employee includes their current status of health, relationships, finances, living situation. Prior to COVID-19, and despite these differences, an office created a mutual meeting point where an employer could control the environment, culture, equipment, food, and location.

“Essentially, an employer could positively impact an employee’s time spent in the office. When companies moved to 100% remote work, employers lost the ability to provide this kind of environment for employees. During this time, we provided our Humigos with team lunches, bi-monthly company-wide social events, quarterly ‘new hire’ social events, lunch-and-learns, monthly Humi Halls, and monthly Ask Me Anything’s (AMA’s) to engage with leadership. We have also implemented a work-from-home (WFH) stipend in order to enable our Humigos to make their home office more ergonomic and conducive to how they want to work.”

How to instigate a difficult conversation

Considering that around a quarter of employees admit that they’ve been struggling with mental health issues throughout the pandemic, having a conversation about it shouldn’t be as difficult as it seemingly is. Sadly, workers are less likely to approach HR if they are struggling, meaning it’s up to you to take the lead.

HRD recently spoke to Nabeela Ixtabalan, executive vice president, people & corporate affairs at Walmart Canada – who debated the link between leadership transparency and mental wellbeing. After partnering with Arianna Huffington’s Thrive, Ixtabalan talked through her own experiences of dealing with workaholism.

“What I love about working with Nabeela,” Huffington told HRD, “is that that first time I spoke to her, she said ‘my immediate goal is to stop leaders from pretending that they don't face problems like burnout’. Having written about her own journey, she’s given cultural permission to others to speak openly about theirs – which is amazing.”

In order to instigate your own open conversation, Bartlett suggested to HRD the following four-point plan to help HR leaders.

1. Identify. Pay attention to the signs and signals. Specifically: are they one-off instances? Prolonged issues?

2. Track. Managers should track (not report) instances of changes in employee engagement, morale, and/or behaviours. This is meant to be internal at this stage (i.e for the manager only) in order to determine if the next step is needed.

3. Consult. Involve the appropriate stakeholders; this may look like a 1-1 with a manager and employee, it may involve someone from the people team, or it may involve reaching out to your Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP) representative for more specific support.

4. Discuss and/or follow-up. At this stage, the stakeholders involved (manager, people team, etc.) have the role of being an active listener, that's it. Based on the information shared, you’ll determine an action plan, which includes a timeline for follow-up as needed, in order to support the team member.

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Remember, every employee is unique – their internal struggles will be different. In order to really instigate change in your organization, start by opening up yourself. Leading by example when it comes to mental health is one of the strongest ways to demonstrate a safe space. In a recent interview with HRD, Dr Nick Hobson, chief behavioral scientist at Emotive Technologies, revealed how sharing personal experiences can facilitate a culture of trust.

“Leaders can design a more positive employee experience when they are more vulnerable themselves,” he told HRD. “If a leader comes and says: ‘Look, I've had a terrible time. This has been hard for me. My kids have been home from day care and have been screaming in the background. I've had to try and work just to get things done. It's been really tough. I've been of scared. I've been worried. I've been really anxious and stressed out, etc’, this makes a huge difference in helping your teams open up. Relating to your people on that on that human level makes them feel empowered and safe in sharing their own experiences with you.”

How are you supporting your employees this Mental Health Week? Tell us in the comments.

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