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24 November 2008

First aid for mental illness

How do you spot when a colleague is suffering from mental health issues? Siobhan Jones suggests 10 s

By Siobhan Jones

Having a job can help maintain your general wellbeing, but there are times when the workplace is a source of unnecessary and unhealthy stress.

In the UK, 32 million work days are lost each year because of symptoms of mental ill health and which can cost employers around £4 billion.

Lack of control, little work variety, low pay, poor working conditions and – these days – the fear of unemployment all contribute to stress among employees.

That stress then hits companies’s coffers with a negative impact not just on firms’s finances but also on the motivation and self-esteem of the entire workforce, denting productivity.

Unfortunately, employees often don’t know who to turn to at work. Government guidelines state it is the employers’s responsibility to provide “mentally safe” workspaces by, for example, offering flexible working hours and providing proper resources to do a job.

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Ideally managers should be a reassuring presence and allow employees to admit to being stressed, low or overwhelmed, but it is also the employee’s responsibility to ask for help – and colleagues’s responsibility to help recognise when somebody is in need.

This doesn’t mean you need to spy on the people you work with, or should start making wild assumptions about their behaviour, but here are ten possible signs to look out for that may suggest mental ill-health:

  • Continuous lateness or unexplained days off
  • Marked personality changes
  • Inability to cope with workload, missing deadlines and forgetfulness
  • Prolonged low mood or depression
  • Extreme emotional highs (e.g. hyperactivity) and lows (e.g. crying)
  • Dramatic changes in eating habits or alcohol consumption
  • Excessive fears, anxieties and tiredness
  • Unusual anger, hostility or violence
  • Withdrawal from social contact
  • Appearing numb or emotionless

Raising the subject can be done in small, simple ways. Just a “how are you doing?” or an “I’ve noticed you have been looking a bit tired recently, I was wondering if there is something up?” can be a step towards someone seeking help.

Using the same idea as Medical First Aid, the Care Services Partnership has started to offer training in Mental Health First Aid.

Already on offer elsewhere, including in Scotland and Australia (where it was first developed), this is a way to give managers and employers the confidence to recognise symptoms in their colleagues, provide on-the-spot comfort and to offer advice on where to seek professional help.

Ideally, in the future, this will be a necessary requirement of new employees’ health and safety training.

Helping people understand mental wellbeing and dispelling the myths around mental ill health will hopefully, in turn, lead to an increase in people seeking help earlier on and help reduce the stigma around employing people with mental health issues.

Only one in 10 companies have an official policy on mental health. Promoting mental wellbeing in the workplace is not about waiting for someone to get seriously ill before acting. It is also not just about adding in some motivational pictures and a few pot plants.

It’s about taking a holistic approach: considering people’s physical and emotional needs and engaging with individuals to inspire confidence and help them cope at times of stress. All these things, no matter how small they may seem, can boost the productivity, performance and morale of a workforce.

Sources of advice and support

Alcoholics Anonymous

British Association of Psychotherapists

Cruse Bereavement Care

Health & Safety Executive

Mental Health Foundation

MIND

NHS

Relate – Relationship Advice

Samaritans

The Work Foundation

Siobhan Jones is a Mental Health Promotion & Suicide Prevention Worker

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