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How to spot an employee who could be suffering from a mental illness


by Simon Lythgoe

In any single year, 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health challenge. Given the number of people who are affected on a daily basis by mental illness, it’s becoming increasingly important for employers to be alert to the signs that someone might be struggling. Employers who have safeguards in place to support and help employees in this situation can nurture a more loyal and motivated workforce and a more positive business culture.

How do you spot an employee with a mental health challenge?

Although everyone is different there are some common signs that individuals may be finding it difficult to cope with daily life. These include:

  • Erratic behaviour. When an employee suddenly changes the way that they behave or begins behaving differently from one day to the next this can be a sign that something is not right. Inconsistent and erratic behaviour is often one of the first indicators that an employee might be facing a mental health challenge – anything that is out of character for the person involved should be an indicator.

  • Mood swings. Although we tend to associate dark moods with mental illness, such as the heaviness of depression or the sadness that can accompany it, it’s not always the case. A manic mood – being much more energetic and chatty than usual – can also be a sign of some mental illnesses. It’s not always those who are quiet who may be suffering, sometimes the louder the employee the more they are struggling to deal with what’s happening internally.

  • Tiredness and fatigue. There are many reasons why tiredness tends to be an indicator of mental illness. It may be, for example, that an employee is not sleeping as a result of anxiety and this is causing them to appear tired at work. Alternatively, conditions such as depression often make individuals feel low on energy and lethargic and demotivated when it comes to daily life.

  • Not showing up for work. Everyone takes sick days and absences sometimes but if these become more frequent and are often unexplained then there may be a problem.  Employees who take a lot of sick days sporadically, as opposed to in a block, may be showing signs of feeling like they are not able to cope with day-to-day life. Especially if there is no specific illness or condition involved but a series of short issues, such as food poisoning or 24 hour flu – then these absences may not be what they appear to be.

  • A drop in the quality of performance. When employees have a mental health issue this may appear at first as a dip in performance. Symptoms might be a reduction in the ability to concentrate, for example, being unable to multitask or finding it difficult to relate to other people, whether they are staff or clients.

It’s important to respond to staff who have mental health challenges with empathy. Creating support structures and encouraging a business culture of openness can ensure that employees feel able to ask for help when they need it.