Worried about your colleague's stress levels? Here's how to support them

1st Sep 17 | Lifestyle

As a report shows one in three sick notes are for mental health problems, experts reveal how to help support workmates who may be struggling.

Desperate employee stressed man resting head on laptop

We all have days at work when we want to scream, but stress and anxiety at work are affecting people in ‘alarming’ numbers, as a new report by the NHS found almost a third of workers being signed off by doctors were suffering from mental health problems.

Of the five million people given sick notes each year, 31% were for mental health and behavioural conditions, with a 14% rise in notes relating to stress and anxiety – from 503,000 to 573,000 – in just a year. Dr Jed Boardman, from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, told The Telegraph the statistics were “alarming”, and urged employers to do more to help workers with mental health issues.

What to look out for in colleagues

The word stress written in chalk on a blackboard (Thinkstock/PA)

Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at mental health charity Mind, says: “We all experience stress in different ways, but there are signs you can look out for: Feeling irritated, drinking or smoking excessively, finding it hard to sleep or struggling to concentrate. Co-workers struggling with stress might feel really upset and emotional, or feel like crying.

“You might also notice some physical signs of stress, like headaches or an upset stomach. Stress can affect your breathing, and make your chest feel really tight. It can even affect your blood pressure. If stress is having a big impact on your life, or you’re finding it hard to get away from overwhelming feelings, it’s worth going to see your GP.”

Acas, who offer help and advice for employers and employees, adds: “Changes in the person’s usual behaviour, mood, standard of work or how they interact with colleagues can be signs of stress. Someone experiencing stress can often appear tired, anxious or withdrawn and have a reduced interest in tasks they previously enjoyed.

“Their appetite may noticeably change and they may be smoking more than usual. Another sign can be a sudden increase in sickness absence or turning up late to work.

A woman sitting at her desk with hands over her eyes (Thinkstock/PA)

“The earlier a manager becomes aware that a team member is stressed at work or experiencing mental ill health, the sooner steps can be taken to prevent it becoming more serious and provide support to help them during this period.”

AXA PPP healthcare have divided some of the common symptoms of mental health issues like stress into three core areas, with 19 different possible signs to look out for:

Psychological symptoms
1. Confusion
2. Indecision
3. Aggression
4. Low mood/mood swings
5. Being tearful
6. Exhibiting low self-confidence
7. Seeming unmotivated
8. Deterioration in memory

Physical symptoms
9. Moving more slowly than usual
10. Change in weight/appetite
11. Unexplained aches and pains

Behavioural/social symptoms
12. Appearing nervous
13. Changing their eating habits
14. Change in attendance
15. Neglecting work
16. Withdrawing from social media channels
17. Loss of interest in appearance
18. Deterioration of performance at work
19. Fatigue

What to do if you’re worried about a colleague

A woman comforts an upset colleague in the staff canteen (Thinkstock/PA)

Emma says: “If you’re worried that a colleague is experiencing unmanageable stress, ask them how they’re doing. Lots of people feel uncomfortable talking about mental health, but even if your co-worker doesn’t want to speak about it, you’ve let them know you are there for them if and when they do.

“Looking out for colleagues is important, but above all it should be down to employers to create an environment where staff feel able to talk openly about stress and mental health at work and not bottle things up if it’s getting too much. It’s also in employers’ interests to take steps to support the mental health of their staff, as those that do will find their staff are more productive, happy and less likely to need time off sick.”

She suggests the following ways to support your work mates…

Encourage them to talk: Start by talking about general wellbeing, and let people know that they can talk to you if they need to. Remember everyone’s experience of mental health problems is different, so focus on the person, not the problem. Staying silent is one of the worst things people can do and opening up and talking about how they’re feeling can in turn help them feel more relaxed about chatting to their manager. Even if they don’t want to speak about it at that time, you’ve still let them know you care, and you’re there for them when the time is right.

Encourage them to seek support from the workplace: If someone feels like their workload is spiralling out of control, encourage them to discuss it with their manager or supervisor. If their manager doesn’t create the space for them to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue. It depends on the relationship they have with their manager, but if they have a good relationship and trust them, then they could meet them on a one-to-one basis to discuss what’s going on. Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if they didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.

Avoid making assumptions: Don’t try to guess what symptoms a co-worker might have and how these might affect their life or their ability to do their job – many people are able to manage their condition and perform their role to a high standard.

Respect confidentiality: Remember mental health information is confidential and sensitive. Don’t pass on information unnecessarily – not least because this breach of trust could negatively impact someone’s mental health.

© Press Association 2017