Learning to understand, remove the stigma, and support your colleagues with mental illnesses.

Industry Challenges

Mental health is a topic we are often too afraid to talk about, possibly because we know little about it, and we do not know how to approach the subject appropriately. Understanding someone’s condition of emotional well-being and how their mental health is presented can be difficult to interpret and varies between people. This is due to the various signs and symptoms and how they are often masked by the front we put up in the public.

The statistics of mental health estimate that one in five adults in western cultures are living with a mental illness. This is an incredibly large percentage of the population that are struggling every day and much of the time we have no idea that this is even happening. Global suicides total 800,000 per year, highlighting the need for us to act in order to save lives. As we continue to live in testing times globally, its now more important than ever to begin to understand each other so we can support one and another.

What is mental illness?

Mental illness includes many different conditions that vary in degree from mild to severe. These illnesses include but are not limited to, anxiety, depression, bipolar, psychotic disorders, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorders, and substance abuse disorder. All these illnesses have a different impact on how people think, feel, and behave and this not only affects their personal life but also their work. At work this can impact everything from productivity and communications to their ability to maintain safety. The World Health Organization estimates a 1 trillion cost to the global economy as a result of lost productivity caused by depression and anxiety. We spend around 60% of our waking hours working, so it is vital, as a business, to understand what mental illnesses at work look like and how we can create a positive environment that helps overcome feelings of hopelessness, isolation, and the development of mental illness.

Spotting the signs and symptoms of mental illness

Mental illnesses present differently for every person. People with the same mental illness may have very different symptoms to each other, but both be suffering from the same illness. The key is to recognize these behaviors in order to provide the best support for this person. Typical symptoms can include the following:

  • Feeling sad or down
  • Confused thinking or reduced ability to concentrate
  • Excessive fears or worries, or extreme feelings of guilt
  • Extreme mood changes of highs and lows
  • Withdrawal from friends and activities
  • Significant tiredness, low energy or problems sleeping
  • Detachment from reality (delusions), paranoia or hallucinations
  • Inability to cope with daily problems or stress
  • Trouble understanding and relating to situations and to people
  • Problems with alcohol or drug use
  • Major changes in eating habits
  • Excessive anger, hostility or violence
  • Suicidal thinking


Each illness has different symptoms and behavioral indicators as described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) and International Classification of Diseases (ICD). Diagnosing is not our responsibility nor something we should attempt to do. This is to be left to the healthcare professionals. However, understanding these identifying factors is something we can collectively work on to help create the next steps in supporting someone with these symptoms.

What can employers do?

One of the greatest tools you have is your voice and your ears. Approaching someone who you believe might be suffering from a mental illness can be a difficult and challenging experience. Talking openly and honestly whilst having a sound overview of what support and assistance is available from your company or externally is important knowledge to have before initiating the conversation.

When you do decide to approach the person about their mental health, you need to show that you care and this conversation is coming from a place of concern, but you also need to be respectful and approach this in a manner that makes them feel safe talking with you. Here are some simple tips for talking about mental health with your employee/colleague.

  • Set time aside with no distractions
  • Let them share as much or little as they want to
  • Don’t try diagnose or second guess their feelings
  • Keep questions opened ended
  • Talk about well-being
  • Listen carefully to what they tell you
  • Offer them help in seeking professional support and provide information on ways to do this
  • Know your limits


Impact of your work environment

The working environment is another key area that can positively impact your employee’s mental health. Workplace well-being programs are increasingly being utilized as their worth is examined and understood. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and the National Academy of Medicine have identified worker well-being as a key national health issue. It has been found that healthy and happy employees have a better quality of life, lower risk of disease and injury, and an increase in productivity. Those that are in good physical, mental, and emotional health are more likely to deliver optimal performance in the workplace also.

Workplace well-being programs often focus on exercise as a key outcome. There is an overwhelming body of research that indicates that physical activity reduces the symptoms and frequency of mental illnesses such as depression, but also reduces the risk of developing depression in the first place. It can further improve self-esteem, coping skills, and cognitive functioning. Wellbeing programs can also focus on programs to stop smoking, financial support, help with sleeping and healthy eating.

Providing training to managers can be a great opportunity to help equip them with a more in-depth understanding of mental illness and how it affects the workplace. This can give them a greater understanding of the systematic differences in the way people act, think, and feel. Having this knowledge is a powerful tool in being proactive in managing mental illness struggles and the additional support that is needed for the individual.

In instances where mental illness conditions decline, sometimes leave is necessary. It is important as an employer to be understanding of this and let staff members use sick leave as an option to relieve some of the stress and pressure the employee is feeling. Following the leave period there may need to be adjustments such as flexible hours at the office and time for appointments in order to get the employee back to where they need to be. By having a workplace where communication of emotions is accepted and encouraged, this makes these conversations easier and can also be a great time to check in and see what other support your employee may need.

Through a greater understanding of mental health and illness in the workplace, we can change the way we interact, respond, and support our colleagues and employees. Normalizing mental health and illness into everyday language helps to remove the stigma and barriers that people face when struggling and needing help. Having happy and healthy employees does not only give them a greater quality of life, but also benefits the business immensely. Be the support that you would want. Be there.

Works Cited

Employsure. (2017, October 10). How to manage mental health in your workplace. Retrieved from Employsure: https://employsure.co.nz/blog/manage-mental-health-workplace/

Flanagan, P. (2015, March 1). Physical activity & mental health. Retrieved from Health Navigator: https://www.healthnavigator.org.nz/healthy-living/p/physical-activity-mental-health/

Hohll, A. (2018, November 27). How To Create A Workplace That Supports Mental Health. Retrieved from Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/alankohll/2018/11/27/how-to-create-a-workplace-that-supports-mental-health/#55b474c8dda7

Kagan, J. (2019, Novemeber 10). Wellness Program. Retrieved from Investopedia: https://www.investopedia.com/terms/w/wellness-program.asp

Mayo Clinic. (2019, June 8). Mental Illness. Retrieved from Mayo Clinic: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/symptoms-causes/syc-20374968

Mental Health Foundation. (2020). How to support someone with a mental health problem. Retrieved from Mental Heath Foundation: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/supporting-someone-mental-health-problem

Ministry of Business. (2020). Managing mental health in the workplace. Retrieved from Ministry of Business: https://www.business.govt.nz/news/managing-mental-health-in-the-workplace/

National Institute of Mental Health. (2019, February ). Mental Illness. Retrieved from National Institute of Mental Health: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml

National Safety Council. (2019, November 13). Surgeon general to employers: Ramp up your worker well-being initiatives. Retrieved from Safety + Heatlh: https://www.safetyandhealthmagazine.com/articles/19091-surgeon-general-to-employers-ramp-up-your-worker-well-being-initiatives?utm_campaign=Membership%20News%20Alert&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=79429651&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-8S6kFm5MWfswxILX

Ritchie, H, Roser, M & Oritz-Ospina, E. (2020). Suicide. Retrieved from Our World In Data: https://ourworldindata.org/suicide

World Health Organisation. (2019, May). Mental health in the workplace. Retrieved from World Health Organisation: https://www.who.int/mental_health/in_the_workplace/en/