Lauren Parsons explains how to recognise the signs when things aren’t going well

As an administrator, you play a key role in keeping people connected and ensuring teams are informed, and you’re often providing an all-important listening ear. With stress and anxiety on the rise, it’s vital to know the full range of signs to look for that could indicate mental distress among your colleagues, and to know how to respond.

A US study showed that 80% of workers feel stressed at work, 40% feel very or extremely stressed, and 25% view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives.[i] In 2017, the World Health Organisation said that depression is the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide. A New Zealand study showed that the risk of burnout tripled over an 18-month period up to November 2021, increasing from 1 in 9 people to now just 1 in 3.[ii]

A major British study also revealed that 48% of workers have experienced a mental health problem in their current job, but only half of those who had experienced poor mental health at work had spoken to their employer about it. This suggests that 25% of your team may be struggling in silence.[iii]

It’s clear you’re highly likely to have colleagues within your team suffering with mental distress. Putting your head in the sand and ignoring this only exacerbates the challenge.

Withdrawal, sadness, and angry outbursts are commonly known signs to watch for. Here are some of the other signs that may not always immediately come to mind.

9 Signs to Look For

1. Memory

Becoming forgetful and missing small day-to-day things can be a sign. Ongoing stress interferes with the brain’s ability to think clearly. It impacts on normal decision making, reasoning and memory. Watch for confusion and regularly forgetting things.

2. Temperament

Get to know your colleagues so you can notice any change in mood or behaviour. If someone is naturally quiet or reserved, that’s not necessarily a warning sign. It’s more if you notice a change (for example, those that are normally outgoing becoming withdrawn, or the opposite).

3. Appearance

A lack of grooming or no longer taking care of their appearance can be a sign as well. I can recall this personally, many years ago when I was in a workaholic phase and not in a good headspace. I would dress all in black, tie my hair in the same bun every day so I didn’t have to style it and never wore makeup. It was really a symptom of feeling overwhelmed and lacking time or effort to even do the basics. Wearing black isn’t a sign in itself, of course, but seeing changes in people’s standards of personal grooming can be.

4. Lack of interests

Take note if your staff are no longer taking part in or interested in hobbies that you know they normally are. If you ask how their painting is going, what’s growing in the garden or where they’ve been mountain-biking lately and they respond in a flat, uninterested way or say that they’ve stopped or haven’t made time for it lately, that’s a sign to watch for. It’s important people have pursuits in life that bring them joy.

5. Change in decision-making ability

There are two ends of a spectrum with this one. Watch for people being overly rash and making lots of hasty decisions. Also, watch for people being excessively indecisive and procrastinating or being unable to make a decision at all.

6. Pace

Sometimes people will speed up their pace, trying to fit everything in and avoid spending time on thought or reflection. They can appear “hyper” in their actions and their speech.

7. Control

Again, this can be different ends of a spectrum. People lacking the ability to control their emotions, for example, become easily upset in situations when it’s difficult to understand the reason. At the other end, people may seem overly controlled, being stoic and not displaying any emotion as they’re trying to hold everything in.

8. More frequently unwell

Ongoing mental distress can suppress the body’s immune system function. Take note if you hear staff complaining of ongoing minor illnesses or increasing sick leave.

9. Personality

Take note if normally sociable people withdraw and avoid their workmates. Sometimes people can become more easily irritable, angry, or cynical. Listen for the language that’s used.

Taking Action

It’s important for you and your leaders to have the skills to spot these signs and open up conversations with your colleagues. You might start with an “I’ve noticed you don’t seem like yourself lately and I’m concerned about you” statement, then ask how they’re doing. Be sure to do this in an appropriate time and place and show genuine empathy.

Remember that you don’t need to solve their problems. Listening non-judgementally is powerful in itself, as it helps people gain clarity and feel valued and heard. You may want to put them in touch with a counsellor so they get the support they need.

There is a lot more to this process than what can be covered in one short article, but the first step is noticing and choosing to respond.

It’s worth investing in professional development around spotting the signs and knowing how to respond. I’ve helped many organisations introduce a team of wellbeing champions who are equipped with this special skillset. It has helped them not just to boost their own health and happiness, but also to create a wellbeing-focused workplace culture, increasing team connection and psychological safety – which is the number one key to a high-performing team.[iv]

Some dos and don’ts we cover include:

Do

  • Choose a good time and place to connect (if you get this wrong, people will feel you’re insincere or inconsiderate and be less likely to talk to you).
  • Have conversations in an appropriate, private setting where they can feel most comfortable.
  • If you don’t have an appropriate space on-site, head outdoors for a walk or arrange to meet off-site – for example, at a café.
  • Let people know your conversation will remain confidential.
  • If you feel it’s worth alerting their manager to something that’s been raised, discuss this with the individual first and help them with this process.
  • Show that you have an open mind by avoiding judgement statements.
  • Listen actively without mentally rehearsing what you want to say next and jumping in. (Try it – this is tough!)
  • Slow down and take your time. Allow pauses.
  • Talk about mental health and mental fitness in a positive way.
  • Follow through if you promise to do something (like check in again).

Don’t

  • Bring up private or sensitive conversations in a public space.
  • Try to jump straight into solving problems (listen first and ask open questions).
  • Tell them they should ‘just relax’ or ‘toughen up.’
  • Tell people what they have to do.
  • Tell people what you would do if you were them (everyone is unique in how they will best respond).
  • Involve other people without discussing it with the individual first (unless you are concerned that they or someone else may be at risk of harm).

The first step is noticing how someone is doing and choosing to be courageous and ask. Remember that you don’t need to solve someone’s problems for them. All you need to do is listen non-judgementally, provide reassurance, and refer them on to the appropriate support – whether that’s professional or family/work-based supports. Being listened to has huge power to allow people to get clarity, start thinking through solutions, and feel valued and supported, so it’s highly beneficial in and of itself.

When you and your leaders tune in to your colleagues and make it the norm in 1-on-1s and team meetings to check in on how everyone is doing, rather than only what people are doing, you’ll have a thriving team culture where everyone can perform at their best and go the distance.

If you or someone you know needs further help, reach out. Don’t try to solve everything on your own. Get help early on before things snowball. There is a helpful list of international helplines here.


[i] From Evidence to Practice: Workplace Wellness that Works (2015). https://www.transamericainstitute.org/docs/default-source/jhu/from-evidence-to-practice—workplace-wellness-that-works.pdf?sfvrsn=dcbd5e9b_32

[ii] Can Summer Tame the Flames of Burnout? (2021). https://news.aut.ac.nz/news/can-summer-tame-the-flames-of-burnout

[iii] Half of Workers Have Experienced Poor Mental Health in Current Job (2018). https://www.mind.org.uk/news-campaigns/news/half-of-workers-have-experienced-poor-mental-health-in-current-job/

[iv] Guide: Understand Team Effectiveness. https://rework.withgoogle.com/print/guides/5721312655835136/

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Lauren Parsons is a New Zealand-based, award-winning wellbeing specialist who believes that everyone deserves to thrive. She is passionate about equipping and inspiring people to truly boost their health and happiness. With over 20 years’ experience in ... (Read More)

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