Skip to main content

According to the World Health Organisation, around 1 in 4 people worldwide will be affected by mental illness at some point in their lives. At the moment, there are around 450 million people who suffer from conditions such as chronic stress and poor mental health, anxiety and depression, placing mental illness among the biggest causes of ill health across the globe.

It is therefore probable that any business will have to deal with mental health problems in the workplace, even more so given the pandemic. In the last year alone, it is estimated that poor mental health cost UK employers around £42 billion. The pandemic has exacerbated the rate at which employees are succumbing to common problems like stress, anxiety and burnout. That said, it can often be challenging for businesses to find ways to properly address this issue. It is telling that only around 13% of employees report feeling comfortable talking about their mental health at work.

This is a major problem. Employers need to play a leading role in making their workplaces safe for discussions related to mental health and wellbeing. We can start off by first learning to recognise some of the key signs that might signal someone is struggling with chronic stress and poor mental health. These may include:

Change in behaviour

Keep an eye out for signs of change in your staff’s personalities, such as moodiness, short temper, lack of patience or general disaffection from daily work life. Some other signs might include increased restlessness, anxiety or irritability. It can be tricky to properly monitor remote staff, but try to be alert when on calls.

Change in work habits

This is not the same as judging someone for their work performance. Look for specific habit changes that may signal underlying issues. These might include an employee who has started to switch off their camera during video meetings, or someone who has stopped engaging with colleagues altogether.

Frequent complaints about physical symptoms

Poor mental health will often manifest through physical symptoms, such as back and neck strain, stomach cramps, insomnia, fatigue or headaches. If someone is frequently complaining and there is no direct, identifiable cause, then this may signal underlying mental health problems.

Absence from work

Don’t confuse this with simple slacking off. When someone who is usually very punctual suddenly starts arriving late to work and missing meetings, this could be a key sign they need support.


If you have encountered any of these key warning signs or perhaps even a combination of them in your employees, then here’s where to start. Often someone will pick up on behavioural changes but shy away from confronting staff directly and handling the conversation. This is understandable, as managing these conversations can be challenging.

Remember that as an employee, manager or HR advisor, you are not expected to be an expert in mental health. Rather, the key is to fully understand what support mechanisms are available within your organisation, and what further external support, programmes, tools or applications are at your staff’s disposal if they need them. Managers, especially, should be fully prepared to act as conduits to those who are expertly trained in providing support. The CIPD emphasises the crucial role that managers can play in driving a culture of support and wellbeing.

That said, everyone who deals directly with staff needs to be trained in the basic skills needed to handle conversations and direct the person to relevant support mechanisms. Verbal dialogue is the key here, but nonverbal communication cues can also be extremely useful. Here are some tips for when handling challenging conversations with employees:

Try not to appear threatening or challenging

Refrain from standing directly opposite the person. Don’t place your hands on your hips, and make sure you are on the same level as them.

Make sure you’re listening

Pay attention to the employee when they are speaking. Try not to let your thoughts steer away, and certainly don’t start preoccupying yourself with other things, like looking at your watch or phone.

Get on their level

This needs to be emphasised. If the employee you are addressing is sitting, take a seat too.

Place yourself at a right angle to the person

Rather than standing directly opposite them, position yourself at a right angle. This sets a more casual context for the conversation.

Stay calm

Use calming body language. Make sure your hands are not clenched, speak slowly, and try to appear relaxed.

Ensure plenty of space

Give the person plenty of physical space. You don’t want to appear intrusive.


Once you have initiated the conversation, the next step is to direct them to further support. This might be a trained Mental Health First Aider (MHFA), or a member of your Wellbeing Champions Team. Always have this information about further support to hand before you initiate a conversation about mental health. You want to be ready and prepared.

Thrive4Life have over 30 years’ experience in providing expert health, safety and wellbeing guidance to organisations across industry. For more information about our portfolio of training courses, including Line Manager training, Mental Health First Aid, and Wellbeing Champion training, please get in touch or email or call us on 020 8972 9675.

Share this page on your Social Media!

Leave a Reply

Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.
Subscribe to our email newsletter