Compared to 2010, when talking about mental health at work was still very exotic, today, we know that more and more organisations have made the wellbeing of their employees a priority. There is a lot of work to be done until we eliminate the stigma in society, but it will take time and patience.

And still, we are not yet very confident about how to talk about mental health and help a colleague or a friend when this is needed.

One thing that I’m confident in is that leaders and managers can have a key role in identifying potential mental health problems at work and directing their team members for help.

Are mental health problems at work a real issue?

A study conducted last year among 4,135 respondents (of which 3,550 were valid) found that the Maltese working population is generally healthy (77 per cent), but 23 per cent of employees show significant symptoms of stress and anxiety and need help (Novargo, DIER, 2021).

This data shows that mental health issues at work are as real as in any other part of life, and they are not necessarily caused by the work itself, but are affecting the performance and the contribution of the individual on the job.

The role of the organisation in addressing mental health is important, and for more insights, you can see my previous article  ‘Ask yourself these four questions to see if you are doing enough about employee well-being’ here.

What can leaders and managers do?

Leaders, managers and colleagues are in a unique position to have regular interactions with the person that is not doing well, and can be the first to spot the change and the potential problem at an early stage.

Helping someone with a mental health problem is not an easy thing, and will require patience and perseverance – the stigma is still very strong, and it might take more time for the colleague to grow used to the idea that getting help is ok.

Use these four steps* to support your team members and colleagues when they are going through a rough time.

1. Look. Look for signs that the person is going through something at the moment. Not everything will be a crisis and some changes will happen over time. Often, we will see a change in drive and work performance, indecisiveness, avoiding contact and interactions with colleagues, sadness, worry and others.

2. Listen. Get in touch with the person and start a conversation. Show that you care, and that you want to help. Don’t judge and make it about yourself, but about them. Talk less and listen more! Ask them how you can help. Don’t pressure them and allow some space for awareness. If the person is not in a crisis, you might need to come back to this conversation again. Do not focus on work performance but on the individual and how are they feeling!

3. Link. Link the person with professional help. The keyword is professional. This could be a GP/Family doctor, Psychologist, Psychotherapist, Counsellor, or Psychiatrist if needed. Explore what resources you have at work – this could be an Employees Assistance Programme (EAP), private health insurance that includes the above professional help, a helpline, or an app. Let the person choose what works best for them. If the person is in crisis and there is a risk to their safety, this will require an immediate reaction and emergency services may be required.

4. Line. Set boundaries and draw an imaginary line of how much you can get involved and how much you can help. Communicate your limitations and be honest with the person you are helping. Remember that you are not a therapist, and your role is to support the team member to get professional help!

*(The look, listen, link approach is used in several helping strategies such as Psychological first aid, for example, and here is used to illustrate four easy-to-follow steps.)

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