Your colleagues' mental health

It’s up to each and every one of us to look out for the mental health of our colleagues. This is partly out of plain kindness, and also because at work we are in a position to notice the signs of any mental health issues our workmates might be experiencing.

“The workforce is unique, in that we get to see people regularly and in a consistent environment,” explains Eliza Oakley, Manager of SANE Australia’s Mindful Employer program.

What to look for

Signs of mental health issues don’t have to be serious. In fact, we should look out for each other even before things reach a more serious level, and go out of our way to notice when things aren’t quite right.

“What we’re looking for is any change in behaviour,” explains Oakley. “It might be that the person is withdrawn where they used to contribute ideas to team meetings, or at lunchtime they’ve withdrawn from social interaction. It might be a change in mood, or it could be that there are an unusual number of errors in the work they’ve completed.”

These aren’t necessarily signs that your colleague is tumbling into depression, however they are indicators that something is going on. Whether you know a colleague is experiencing or has been diagnosed with mental health issues or not, your support could help them through a tough time.

How can  you help

Oakley says there are six ways we can support our colleagues’ mental health:

1. Check it out

If you’re feeling uncomfortable about asking after someone’s mental health, it helps to compare it with physical health: if someone came into work with a limp, everyone would ask if they are okay. Why should mental health be any different? “We need to check out any change in any aspect,” explains Oakley. “It doesn’t mean there are mental health issues but we do need to ask, ‘Are you okay?’”

2. Don’t assume it’s performance-based

One of the tricky things about mental health issues is that they often appear as indicators of lowered performance. “In the not so distant past, the first thing we’d do if there was a change in someone was managing their performance,” Oakley says. “What we’re being called to do now is, in every instance, give the person a chance to speak and to let you know what’s going on.”

3. You don’t need details

While it’s important to check in with our colleagues, we need to remind ourselves of boundaries and privacy requirements. “It is our business to care about other people in the workplace, but that doesn’t mean needing to know the finer details,” says Oakley. You can be supportive while still respecting your colleague’s right to decide how much they’re comfortable in disclosing. 

4. Educate yourself about mental health

There is still a stigma around mental health issues, and it’s this that we need to work hard to remove. That can only happen through education that will give us the confidence to open up discussions about mental health, learning what we can say and how we can support our colleagues. “Let’s educate ourselves enough that we let go of the stigma around potential mental health issues,” suggests Oakley.

5. Be open-minded

We need to be careful of judging our colleagues and limiting their perceived capabilities based on those judgements. With one in five Australians currently experiencing mental health issues, the reality is that each of us has a lot to contribute despite the challenges we’re facing. “We need to let go of putting people in boxes and saying that’s all you're capable of,” Oakley advises. “It’s just ascertaining what is that person’s best contribution at the moment.”

6. Be clear on your own limitations

Your role is to be supportive and understanding, while remembering to look after yourself too. “Take the time to listen and be very clear of your own boundaries,” Oakley says. “If the person continues to need support, encourage them to speak to their manager to have appropriate adjustments in the workplace made, or recommend they speak to their GP.”