It wasn’t that long ago that the topic of mental ill-health was taboo; quite simply, it just wasn't spoken about.
Then, some progress was made, and we saw the introduction of events such as R U OK? Day, and Mental Health Week.
Thankfully, we’ve now advanced even further and these days no one needs any excuse or special occasion to discuss the important and ubiquitous issue of mental ill-health.
Because it is important; and its significance can be measured in a number of ways:
- According to the Mental Health Commission the cost of mental ill-health in Australia each year is 4% of GDP or about $60 billion!
- One can then add to this the cost of “presenteeism” (when someone is present at work but not fully functioning) which has been estimated at about $6.1 billion each year
- Approximately 1 in 4 or 5 people will experience an episode of mental illness each year making it the 3rd largest cause of disability
- Almost 3,000 people take their own lives each year; which equates to approximately 8 people every day of which 6 are male (and suicide, therefore, is the biggest cause of death in young men)
These figures barely even take in to account associated problems such as marital or relationship issues, drug and alcohol problems or “hidden” psychological disorders such as insomnia.
Taken together, these statistics point to the fact that every workplace and every team will be affected (to a greater or lesser extent) by mental ill-health and accordingly, every leader needs to have a basic understanding, at the very least, of how to recognise warning signs and how to respond appropriately.
What to look out for
There isn’t space in this article to comprehensively define and describe all, or even the more prevalent psychological disorders. There are, however, a number of common elements anyone can look out for that might indicate further assessment might be useful. These include significant changes in any or all of the following:
- Mood – most notably, a greater prevalence of low moods such as depression, stress or anxiety. These can be observed via certain behaviours, words or phrases, and especially expressions of hopelessness, helplessness or feeling out of control
- Appearance – such as dishevelled or unclean attire, and messy or disorganised workspace (unless this is normal for that person)
- Performance – including poor quality of work, tardiness in attending work or completing assignments, or suddenly not being able to collaborate with others
How to respond
To begin with, make sure you’re ready and prepared for what might (but won’t always) be a difficult conversation. Set aside an appropriate amount of time so you’re not rushed, and do whatever you need to do to be calm. Prepare yourself by doing any research you might need to do and/or chatting with a colleague if it would help.
Following this, ask the other person if they’re OK. If necessary, express your concern by stating clearly and without judgement what you’ve observed that caught your attention. If they’re not ready or willing to talk then don’t criticise; but let them know that you’d like to discuss your concerns at some time and that you’re available whenever they want.
Seek first to understand; which means listen first and foremost. Don’t interrupt, don’t judge, and be prepared to sit with silence. Encourage the other person to explain in as much detail as possible what’s going on.
Now remember, team leaders and managers usually aren’t and don’t need to be psychologists. So, the goal here is not necessarily to provide “therapy” or even to solve every problem. Rather, the goal should be to help the person take some form of constructive action and if necessary, see someone more qualified to help them.
And finally, check back in after a reasonable amount of time (a day, week or month depending on the nature of the issue). Pending any progress or lack thereof, repeat the steps described above as often as necessary.