One of the few silver linings of the pandemic is that mental health is beginning to enter the workplace wellness vocabulary. The rise in cases of stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness and burnout in the wake of COVID-19 have made employers sit up and take note of mental disorders and their effects on employees. Many organisations today have included mental health in their wellness programmes and are encouraging open conversations around the same.
However, most Indians are still reluctant to talk about their experiences with mental illness due to a fear of discrimination or judgement by their co-workers or bosses. This can make it difficult for organisations to identify signs of psychological distress in the workforce. To make it easier for leaders, we have listed some common warning signs you should be watching out for.
Warning Sign 1: Chronic exhaustion
It is a fallacy that people who work from home don’t experience burnout. Many remote workers are unable to prevent constant work stress from eating into their self-care time—i.e. time normally devoted to nutrition, sleep, family or exercise. Over time, ignoring one’s physical and mental well-being can cause job burnout, which the WHO says is characterised by exhaustion, “negativism or cynicism” towards one’s job, and reduced personal efficacy.
What to do: Burnout is not a mental health condition but an outcome of poorly managed stress. The solution is to help the person identify and manage those stress triggers. This could mean allowing them some time off (Even remote workers need a vacation!), changing their schedule to give them more work-life balance, and giving them access to stress management resources.
Warning Sign 2: Poor self-management
A person’s productivity can fall for multiple reasons, but when it happens over a sustained period and without any obvious cause, it becomes a red flag. If an otherwise efficient and reliable employee has trouble focusing on work, is falling behind deadlines, reports frequent muscle pains, headaches or backaches that interfere with his or her work duties, or has become less communicative and more withdrawn, the manager should pay attention.
What to do: Lowered productivity could be linked to overwork or burnout, but it can also have causes like depression. The US-based CDC states that depression can affect a person’s ability to complete physical job tasks 20% of the time and reduce their cognitive performance 35% of the time. Anxiety and depression are also correlated with physical aches and pains that might lead to greater employee absenteeism. Hence, employers need to provide regular mental health screenings for employees and enable access to expert counselling whenever needed.
Warning Sign 3: Changes in mood
In Outlook magazine’s recent post-lockdown mood survey of private-sector workers across Indian cities, it was found that 46% of workers felt anxious or confused, and 50% felt isolated due to working from home. Mood shifts are quite common, even in healthy people, but sustained or frequent changes could be indicators of low well-being. Examples include sudden panic attacks, extreme anger, frustration or sadness, and rapid oscillation between high-energy and low-energy phases. These symptoms are generally more common in people with depression and other mental health conditions, but job pressure and social isolation during the lockdown could also cause mood changes in otherwise healthy people.
What to do: Have a sensitive conversation with the employee to find out what’s bothering them—excessive workload, fear of criticism, financial insecurity, or some distress in their personal lives. If possible, try to address those stressors directly: for example, through a salary advance or by offering to mentor them. Conduct training sessions on mood management through diet and lifestyle and practices like meditation and mindfulness, gratitude and journaling one’s thoughts. Most importantly, make sure that employees have access to a professional therapist so that they can effectively address any fluctuations in their mental state.
Warning Sign 4: Substance abuse
Alcohol or drugs are often used as a coping strategy to deal with workplace stress or for managing clinical disorders like anxiety or depression. A NIMHANS report shows that regular alcohol users take more long leaves from work than non-users. On average, users also experienced more psychological problems such as lower happiness, lack of sleep, constant strain, body pains and inability to enjoy activities, the report adds. If a colleague exhibits these signs, and you have reason to suspect substance abuse, an intervention might be required.
What to do: Make sure that company policies on substance abuse and safe behaviour in the workplace are communicated to all employees. Employers should stop glamorising drinking at office events, and provide educational resources on the health, productivity and financial effects of substance abuse. Having a trained specialist speak to affected persons can also help them acknowledge the problem and take steps to address them.
Like physical health, mental health lies on a spectrum. Most workers will feel overwhelmed or experience dark thoughts at some point in their careers. But by normalising mental illnesses, workplaces can help people remain mentally resilient, even in tough times like these.