Dos And Don’ts for Dealing with a Colleague With a Mental Health Condition

Offering understanding, flexibility, and support can go a long way in helping the person effectively manage or even overcome their mental health issue.

Dos And Don’ts for Dealing with a Colleague With a Mental Health Condition
Colleague diagnosed with mental health conditioned

Has someone in your team been frequently missing deadlines, remaining absent, or experiencing mood swings (i.e., being happy one moment, and low and moody the next? While mood fluctuations and dropping energy levels could very well be signs of general stress and fatigue, they could also be an indicator of mental health issues.

Psychological conditions often do not manifest as overtly as physical issues, and that’s why they are difficult to identify. At the same time, broaching a sensitive topic like mental health with a colleague can be tough. You need to be careful not to inadvertently offend the person or sound ignorant or apathetic to their situation.

So, what should you do when a colleague seems to be struggling with mental health?

The most important step here is to take things slowly and let your colleague decide the pace. It is advisable to check in with your staff when they are clearly struggling with work. Ensure there is a judgement-free and open space for them to discuss their worries and stressors. Give them time to come use that space to share, or just be. Here’s some advice on supporting a colleague:

Do’s of workplace mental health support

1. Talk to them

It is important to have a focused approach towards understanding what your colleague is going through by communicating with them. Talking can be therapeutic for those suffering from mood-related disorders, like anxiety and chronic depression. However, these conversations need to be well-informed. During these conversations, do ensure you’re not going overboard with your time and are setting proper workplace boundaries.

Read up on mental health issues and how to talk to someone at office suffering from them. Make gentle observations, ask non-judgemental questions and stay in touch without being intrusive. This is the right way to start mental health conversation with a colleague.

Work with them
Work with them

2. Work with them

Your team-mate should know that you and the organisation stand in solidarity with them. Working in an atmosphere where people do not understand your suffering or show indifference can become quite lonely for the individual and worsen their depressive symptoms.

Ask them about moments or situations that trigger unmanageable reactions or lead to poorer mental health, and devise strategies to help them deal with such stressors. It could include allowing a few days off work or a hybrid work arrangement, changes in responsibilities, etc.

Just the simple act of ‘being there is also a great way to lend support to a colleague struggling with mental health

3. Make a plan: Set achievable tasks

If the person is willing, make a plan of action with them. Help them understand that the support cannot go on indefinitely unless changes are made. Keeping them accountable, even if it is for a small action, can go a long way.

If you are an HR manager or an employer who wants the person to undergo therapy and seek professional help, make that clear. If you’re ready to help them with additional resources, convey that too. If progress is what you are targeting, then creating a timeline or chart can be helpful. This will allow them to make the most of your mental health and wellbeing support and feel empowered by taking matters into their own hands.

Here’s how to approach if you witness a mental breakdown at work

Offer help, but within a limit
Offer help, but within a limit

4. Offer help, but within a limit

Being available and supportive all the time can sometimes do more harm than good. Provide clear limits on your availability hours, the number of support meetings you can organise per week, progress reviews, and the amount of adjustment that is possible in terms of workload or expectations.

Emphasising boundaries while supporting their mental health recovery enables your colleague to effectively utilise their resources in times of need.

And this brings us to our Don’ts section.

Don’ts of workplace mental health support

1. Leaving them on read

Leaving someone ‘on read’ (i.e., reading their message but not responding) is unprofessional in itself. But it can have a huge impact on someone struggling with their mental health. Therefore, it is important to remain thoughtful in these situations.

If you are unavailable due to your commitments or are busy, drop them a text, or call them back to catch up on their progress. It is worth your, and the organisation’s, time to ensure your employees experience a safe workplace that respects them despite their vulnerability.

Making decisions – or excuses – for them
Making decisions – or excuses – for them

2. Making decisions – or excuses – for them

As a boss or HR manager, you would want to take pressure off your employee to protect their well-being. But making excuses for your employee’s inability to perform their duties is the opposite of helping them out.

When you see someone clearly struggling with work due to mental health challenges, don’t rush to make decisions about reducing the workload. Stop and reflect. Unless they come to you seeking help or with a solution, try to dissociate yourself from their work.

3. Assume, diagnose, explain or offer advice

Diagnosing or assuming anything about someone’s condition or abilities is a complete no-no where workplace mental health is concerned. Leave the diagnosis to the experts. Your employee is reaching out to you most likely because they want to be heard or need support. If possible, recommend taking professional help.

It is counterproductive to assume the mental health condition of your employee will affect their work or creativity. Sometimes a high-performing employee can also suffer from detrimental mental conditions, and you would never know. Always keep an open mind, and encourage your peers and others in the organisation to do the same.


Supporting Colleagues with Mental Health Conditions

The majority of us usually work through our illnesses, whether physical or mental, without seeking help. And that can be tough for those who see them struggle. Refrain from putting a label on their condition, or talking about their issues openly, without their consent.

As an employer or a colleague, you must be supportive. Provide a safe space for the person to talk about their mental health, and maintain confidentiality. Creating a culture of mental health support can also help others undergoing the same issues. After all, like most physical illnesses, mental health issues are also treatable.

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