Monitoring employees’ mental health and aiding or intervening to assist with any issue is a key part of the management role.

But how is this best done and what can managers look out for?

And if you have employees who are working carers, how can you be sure that their specific mental health support needs are recognised and met?

David Burroughs, Principal Psychologist, CommuniCorp Group, says there are lots of things managers and HR departments can be looking out for.

Most people can recognise when somebody is in psychological distress.  People can see when others are emotionally suffering, but they are often very reluctant to intervene and have a conversation, he said.   “So by giving general staff the confidence and capability to recognise stress in a work colleague, to initiate a conversation, and to know who to refer to internally – that’s a big thing all on its own.  That’s part of what we call ‘psychological safety foundation skills’ that we think all organisations should develop these in their staff,” he said. Working carers may be particularly vulnerable to mental stress, especially when caring for someone with high support needs. Critical times in their caring journey – when they are at their most vulnerable – can be when they themselves are unwell and yet still have to undertake their caring role; when their loved one’s condition worsens; or when they lose a loved one through death.

Burroughs says that HR departments and workplace managers need to have a high level of skill around the area of mental health and psychological distress. “HR teams and managers need to able to have those types of conversations with their staff. They should also understand critical things like their workplace health and safety obligations when it comes to the psychological health and safety of their employees.  They also need to understand how to manage performance when there may be suspected mental health concerns at play.

“But a lot of it comes down to spotting a change in behaviour.  If we can recognise a change in somebody’s behaviour, that’s often an indicator there is some degree of psychological distress there.

It is critical that organisations don’t try and turn their staff into amateur psychologists.  It’s not even altogether appropriate to be training people on the different parts of mental health issues that are out there.  What is most important is to give confidence and capability to intervene if a colleague suspects somebody is having a hard time. “Over and above that though, if you look at corporate Australia, there is a huge number of red flags that people need to be aware of.  Absenteeism, presenteeism, decline in workplace performance, grievance complaints – there is a whole range of metrics and red flags that organisations have available to them that are indicative of a psychological health problem within the workplace.  

“So it’s really important we don’t just look at it from a people perspective, but look at it from a systems perspective as well.” Burroughs said organisations need to ensure they have good systems in place for empathetically dealing with employee mental health issues.

Helen Ayres of law firm, Holding Redlich, says that if a mental health issue is identified there are many ways management can help both the individual and the wider organisation. “Treat it like any other illness,” she advises. “The person should have time off to rest and recover, but then be encouraged to come back to work, whether it be as a structured return to work arrangement, or perhaps they can take some leave and then return after a few weeks,” she said.

“Work with them personally to try and help them get back to work because getting back to work is the best thing for them. “What’s important is to continue good work with education and such bright initiatives like ‘RUOK Day’. At our firm we have focused on offering yoga, boot camp sessions, or things like walking groups and that type of thing.  These things might seem small, but I think that they add to the balance of work and personal life.”

Source: based on a video transcript of David Burroughs of Communicorp and Helen Ayres of Holding Redlich talking to HumanCapital TV.