How to care for the mental health of a colleague


January is a tough month. After all the fun and spending of December, many of us are feeling those New Year blues. The nights draw in, the bank balance is low and we’re probably not even allowing ourselves a cheery slice of chocolate cake.

Of course, this will reflect how we act and operate in the workplace and with reports of breakdowns and depression at an all-time high, we need to be more vigilant than ever that we are taking good care of ourselves and keeping an eye out for our colleagues’ well-being too.

Many employers are ahead of the curve and have support structures in place for employees that are struggling. Yet for those that don’t, how do we tell if a colleague is suffering from a mental health issue and what do we do about it?

How do you know if a colleague is struggling?

Any major life event can trigger stress, but how we react to those stressors is individual to each and every one of us.

Where one may find Christmas so stressful they cannot function, another will excel with the pressure and delight in the challenge it brings. Similarly with a house move, a speeding ticket or a time-pressured project at work. The worst nightmare for one is the making of another.

Without being too ‘big brother’ about it, if you want to support your colleagues, you need to get to know them inside and out. Establishing a behavioural baseline and recognising how they deal with different stresses can, at the very least, help you acknowledge when they might be in need of some extra support or care.

You can never make assumptions that there is a problem, but if you notice any of these 5 warning signs are present for more than a week or two, it may be significant enough to at least start a conversation or ask if they’re ok. 

5 Mental Health Warning Signs:

  • Changes in behaviour, mood or how they interact with colleagues
  • Changes in their work output, motivation levels and focus. Often frequent short-term absence is a warning sign.
  • Struggling to make decisions, get organised and find solutions to problems
  • Appearing tired, anxious or withdrawn and losing interest in activities and tasks they previously enjoyed
  • Changes in eating habits, appetite and increased smoking and drinking.

Now you’ve recognised the signswhat do you do about it?

  • Start a conversation. A one to one away from the office with complete privacy is a good place to start. 
  • Listen without judgment. Let the person talk without trying to push the conversation. Let there be gaps in the discussion if necessary. Let the person you’re worried about set the pace, but be willing to go at his/her speed. Offer emotional support, understanding, patience and encouragement.
  • No means no. Just because you’re ready to talk it doesn’t mean they will be. If they don’t open up, remind them that you are there for them if they want to come back to you.  A gentle ‘is everything ok?’ at a later date will act as a reminder.
  • Be supportive. Statements like  “What can I do to help?” or “Is there anything I can do?” are supportive and not too pushy. Try to show that you understand that depression is a health condition, not a personal flaw or weakness and that it usually gets better with the right management.
  • Talk about the things that used to excite them; invite your colleague to lunch or other activities. Keep trying if he or she declines, but don't push him or her to take on too much too soon.
  • Familiarise yourself with your company’s health benefits. There could be CONFIDENTIAL help and support available that you could point your colleague towards.

The overriding take out from all of these tips is that it’s better to do something than nothing. We should all encourage a duty of care in the workplace and by taking the first steps to help a colleague, you can make a positive difference to the outcome of their experience with a mental health issue. We all owe it to each other.

Has a colleague or a line manager supported you with a mental health issue at work? How did it feel when they first acknowledged that you might be in need of some support