Over the next 12 months, one in every five Australians will experience mental illness*. In the workplace, a health issue of that nature may impact an individual’s job performance and relationships with colleagues.

Appropriate support, provided quickly and sensitively, can hasten their return to wellness. But how do you tell if one of your team needs help? How do you broach the topic with the person concerned? And as a manager, what can you really do to aid their recovery?

John Capon, the Mental Health and Wellbeing Training Program Manager for SuperFriend has some advice.

Where to start

A mental health issue can significantly affect how someone thinks, feels, acts and interacts with others. It manifests as a change in normal behaviour better you know a person, the earlier and more likely you are to notice that change.

“Meeting with your team face-to-face on a regular basis is a must”, according to Capon, “especially as an increasing amount of work is being done away from the office, which limits the opportunity for spontaneous, non-work related conversations”.

Those types of social exchange are also key. You don’t forge a connection with someone via start and end of day courtesies, and the occasional “What’s on your to do list today?”. Your conversations need to show genuine interest; ask open-ended questions like “what did you do on your weekend?”, as opposed to “did you have a good weekend?”. You’ll have to work harder with some people than others, but the closer your relationship, the faster you’ll pick up when something’s amiss.

What to look for

From a cognitive perspective, you may notice diminished concentration, reduced problem-solving ability and less attention to detail. “A person with a mental health issue might appear preoccupied, as if they’re grappling with something else”, Capon says, “they may start making uncharacteristic mistakes, missing deadlines, or dropping balls they don’t normally drop”.

You might observe changes in their emotional responses as well. Someone with a mental health issue can become more agitated, anxious or depressed, more reactive, less able to keep themselves in check. They may also try to isolate themselves and withdraw from contact with others.

Once you become aware of one of more of these changes, it’s time to talk.

What to say

The changes you observe becomes the starting point of your conversation: “I noticed you’ve missed a couple of deadlines over the last few days, how’s everything going?” Or, “I noticed you snapped at Bill in yesterday’s meeting, is everything okay?”

According to Capon, you may well receive a “no I’m fine, thanks” response the first time round. In which case, be sure to remind the individual that they can always come and talk to you about anything.

If the person trusts you enough to reveal the truth—and it may entail sensitive personal information—try to put job performance considerations to one side, and focus on the underlying issue. Because if the person can work their way through that, their performance is likely to return.

How best to help

It’s only human to want to do all you can to support your team member in their time of need, but be realistic and forthcoming about the limitations of your expertise: you’re probably not a qualified counsellor or registered psychologist.

“Prior to having the conversation, familiarise yourself with the mental health resources available within and outside of your organisation”, Capon advises.

SuperFriend’s Peer Support Booklet is a great starting point, as it provides practical suggestions for listening to and supporting work colleagues who may be experiencing mental health challenges”.

“Larger firms will have their own human resources specialists, or access to an employee assistance program. Community resources like Beyond Blue or Lifeline and personal resources, such as the individual’s GP, may also be appropriate”.

“It’s important to demonstrate genuine care and concern”, Capon adds. “But no one expects you to have all the answers, or to fix everything on your own. Taking time to listen and empathise is a great first step, however it’s important that you encourage the individual to obtain appropriate professional support”.

What to do right now

The festive season is almost upon us. It’s a time that can bring great pleasure, but also great pressure—at work and home. As a proactive manager, take the time now to speak with your team about workloads and any general worries, and see what can be done to make things more manageable over the next few months.

Mental Health Resources and Support Services

SuperFriend’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Training for staff and managers provides employees with the confidence, skills, strategies and tools to ensure they are supported, safe and productive at work.

If a life is in danger, call 000. Phone numbers for suicide support and mental health counselling and advice can be found here

About SuperFriend

SuperFriend is a national mental health foundation focused on creating positive, healthy and safe working environments where every employee can be well and thrive. Their goal is to reduce the high rate of suicide and harmful impact of mental illness on individuals and their workplaces.

It is the only mental health organisation that partners with superannuation funds and group life insurers (all profit to member) to gain knowledge of the industry’s unique needs and respond with tailored solutions. Through these collaborative relationships, SuperFriend has the potential to embed mental health and wellbeing best practices into 750,000 workplaces and impact more than half of Australia’s workforce.

Statements made by the interviewee are based on their expertise and have been reproduced with the interviewee’s continuing consent.

* Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2007). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, 4326.0, 2007. ABS: Canberra.