Employee mental ill health: tips on spotting the signs

Spotting the signs of stress or mental ill health among employees can be vital to the effective management of staff wellbeing and sickness absence.

The workplace can, after all, have a significant impact on our mental health, either as a cause of problems or as a facilitator of wellbeing.

Where employees are struggling to cope, early intervention can hold the key to preventing situations from escalating into more serious, and potentially longer term, problems. Line managers will usually be well placed to monitor employees’ work activities, behaviour and general wellbeing, enabling them to identify early warning signs of stress or mental ill health.

Although symptoms will vary, there are a number of tell-tale signs – often be linked to a change in behaviour – that managers should be aware of.  These early warning signals can be categorised as being either physical, psychological or behavioural.

Physical symptoms

Physical pointers to cases of mental ill health may include the following:

–          low energy or fatigue

–          frequent headaches, back, chest or joint pain

–          a change in weight or appetite

–          physical shaking or verbal trembling

Psychological symptoms

Psychological pointers to cases of mental ill health may include the following:

–          aggression or extreme mood swings

–          a lack of motivation

–          unusual emotional displays, such as crying

–          confusion or memory lapses

–          indecision and a lack of self-confidence

Behavioural symptoms

Behavioural pointers to cases of mental ill health may include the following:

–          increased incidents of sickness absence

–          poorer workplace performance

–          poor time keeping

–          irritability or bouts of anger

–          an increase in drinking and smoking

–          withdrawal from social interactions

Addressing the issue: an intervention strategy

There is good evidence to suggest that earlier intervention leads to better outcomes. But how do you go about it?

Engaging with a problem calls for establishing open communication with the employee in a sensitive and supportive manner and then developing an appropriate action plan. This plan might include signposting advice and support, such as the employee speaking to their GP, undertaking OH assessments or arranging counselling through an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). For more information, see our guide on possible treatments for tackling mental health issues.

Workplace triggers for stress should also be identified and addressed as required. For further advice on protecting employees from the harmful consequences of stress and anxiety, see our guide on implementing an effective stress management programme.

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