Today is World Mental Health Day. And the theme is Mental Health In The Workplace. So I thought this was the perfect opportunity to talk about depression at work and how to help a colleague.
Mental health issues in the workplace in numbers
According to Mind at least one in six workers experiences common mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. Their research shows work is the biggest cause of stress in people’s lives, more so than debt or financial problems. If you have been reading this blog for a little while you will know that I can absolutely relate to that.
Mind’s research confirms that a culture of fear and silence around mental health is costly to employers:
- More than one in five (21 per cent) agreed that they had called in sick to avoid work when asked how workplace stress had affected them
- 14 per cent agreed that they had resigned and 42 per cent had considered resigning when asked how workplace stress had affected them
- 30 per cent of staff disagreed with the statement ‘I would feel able to talk openly with my line manager if I was feeling stressed’
- 56 per centof employers said they would like to do more to improve staff wellbeing but don’t feel they have the right training or guidance
Scary numbers, right? But the reality is, as soon as you start talking about your mental health issues to your colleagues, they will open up about theirs and very quickly you will find that the numbers above make sense.
So if people do not open up about their mental health issues, how do you know that they are suffering in silence? Well, there are a few telling signs…
The signs to watch out for
The first thing to know is that everyone’s experience of a mental health problem is different and there may be no obvious sign. This is why it is important to create an open environment.
You should never make assumptions about people’s mental health but you know your colleagues and you may notice changes in them. Here are a few things you might be able to spot:
- changes in people’s behaviour or mood or how they interact with colleagues
- changes in their work output, motivation levels and focus
- 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- appearing tired, anxious or withdrawn and losing interest in activities and tasks they previously enjoyed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
Let’s take them one by one.
Changes in people’s behaviour or mood or how they interact with colleagues
This totally applies to me. On a normal day I am the annoying colleague who is always perky and positive. I start my day by saying hi to absolutely everyone from the moment I get out of my car to the moment I reach my desk. And then I continue all day. I sometimes even push it to the point of saying a very loud “Welcome to Legal!” to people walking through the door of the Legal area, as I sit near it.
Now on a “bad depression day” I avoid eye contact (just in case I start crying), I barely articulate (because it is painful to talk) and I hide behind my monitor so that only people who are really looking for me eventually find me (because they will go around my desk to see if I am there). When I have a bad day, talking takes more energy than I have so I avoid it to the maximum.
The only thing that takes more energy than talking is to not cry. I remember a day only a couple of months ago which was particularly difficult. A colleague of mine was about to get married and all the girls in my team were working together to plan a lovely lunch for her. So we spent a fair amount of time talking about weddings. One of the girls started going on and on about her daughter’s wedding and as I was listening tears started to come up. I spent so much energy in fighting them and trying to keep a smile on my face that I could no longer talk.
My point is, the biggest concern of someone with depression will be to hide it from others. But if you know them well you might be able to spot the changes in their mood and behaviour.
Changes in their work output, motivation levels and focus
Once again, this is completely true for me. I am ambitious and I do care a lot about doing a great job. Not just a good job, a great job. For a long time this was even my only source of self-validation. This is to say how important work was to me! But with depression came times when even I could no longer care. At times I have sometimes thought things like: “why do I even bother? I might die tomorrow and then what will have been the point of putting in all this hard work?”
Clearly this is a little bit extreme but thoughts like these do cross the mind of people who suffer from depression. And once you start thinking like that it is hard to reverse it and that will eventually show through the quality of your work.
Struggling to make decisions, get organised and find solutions to problems
I remember a day in Denmark when I was at rock bottom. At the time I had a friend who was checking on me daily. One day he called me to check if I wanted to go for a walk which we used to do a lot. I could not answer the question. Making a decision between going for a walk or going for a coffee was too much for me to handle.
If you ever find a friend in that situation, your friend isn’t being weird, your friend is depressed.
My friend got so scared that he came over to mine at once and then took me for a walk, and later a coffee.
Appearing tired, anxious or withdrawn and losing interest in activities and tasks they previously enjoyed
– your colleague used to go to the gym every day at lunch time and suddenly stops for no good reason
– your colleague used to join the team for lunch every day and suddenly has an excuse for not joining anymore, every day…
Over the years I have learnt to recognise the early signs of me going into depression. They are subtle but they do include things like, I no longer cook or I stop being creative. Now I am aware of these I can do something about it at soon as I see spot them.
It should be the same with your colleague. If you start knowing their signs, you can talk to them before it gets too tough.
Changes in eating habits, appetite and increased smoking and drinking
Once again this has happened to me over and over again. Going into depression I would slowly stop eating healthy food and eat junk food instead. Then I would eat less and less food, while smoking and drinking more and more. At some point smoking and drinking would replace eating. Watch your colleagues eating habits. That’s an easy one to spot.
So what do you do once you’ve spotted your colleague might be suffering from depression? I would suggest you start by talking to them. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Starting with “How are you?” and being ready to hear an answer different from “All good, and you?” is a good place to start.