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4 signs of poor mental health at work

Last updated on
September 24, 2021

In the word of business, “mental health” can often seem an empty buzzword. Just because we’re throwing it around more frequently in our workplaces, doesn’t mean we’re actually doing anything to truly address it. One of the problems with managing mental health at work comes down to visibility, since mental illnesses often don’t manifest themselves as obviously as physical ones. But there are a few behavioral symptoms to watch out for – and managers who earnestly want to support mental health at work need to be able to identify them.

Dealing with mental health at work

No matter how much we may talk about mental health in the workplace, our current efforts aren’t enough. Around 30% of workers in the UK don’t feel able to speak honestly to their managers about mental health, and mental health problems are the main cause of long-term absence in one in five companies. Clearly, the stigma surrounding poor mental health is still as strong as ever, so instead of paying it lip service, workplaces need to actually introduce with affirmative action.

There are many ways managers can support employee mental health (we’ve written about seven of them already), but one of the most elementary factors involves recognizing the warning signs. Since not all symptoms are visible, managers need to regularly offer employees spaces to talk openly, and in confidence, without judgement. Companies more generally need to normalize conversations around mental health and actively prioritize wellbeing within their culture, so people feel they can ask for them when they need it.

Syptoms of poor mental health in the workplace

Ideally, your workplace should work towards a position where people feel secure talking about their mental health. But trust takes time to develop, and in many large and remote companies it can take a while to develop candid relationships with managers and colleagues. But even if people haven’t opened up to you about how they’re feeling, certain behavioral changes can signpost deeper challenges. Here are the four main signs of poor mental health to keep a watchful eye on:

1. Erratic attendance

Everyone gets under the weather from time to time, but if employees are regularly take days off due to sickness, it could be a sign of poor mental health. Many people don’t feel comfortable admitting that the real reason for their absence is psychological, not physical – and many people still feel that stress, anxiety of depression are things to be ashamed about. If an employee is regularly taking short-term absences, it could be a red flag that something is amiss.

As a manager, try observing absence patterns, and if someone has taken lots of time of work within a relatively short time frame, follow up with return to work interviews or casual check-ins. It’s super important you conduct these in a caring, compassionate manner, remembering that you need help to understand the adjustments you can make to help your employees better manage their mental health.

2. Drops in performance

Often, when people experience poor mental health at work, their engagement and productiity takes a dip. They might seem disinterested in their work, spend far longer than normal on routine tasks, turn up to work late or work longer hours than usual. There are other signs too: employees may struggle to make decisions; seem to have low-energy and appear tired; find it difficult to finish tasks, or seem irritated at very minor things.

These can, of course, just be signs of disengagement – which many people experience at times. It’s important not to make assumptions and jump to conclusions, but be sure to keep an eye on employees who show these symptoms, looking out for changes among these key performance indicators.

3. Uncharacteristic interractions

In many businesses, relationships between managers and employees can be rather guarded, making it difficult to spot changes in behavior. After all, if you don’t know someone well, how do you know what’s normal for them? However, certain changes in employee interaction can indicate there’s a problem. These include irritability, aggression or tearfulness; being louder or quieter than usual; being withdrawn or lacking in confidence; or failing to find humor in things.

Sometimes poor mental health can manifest by employees lashing out or even bullying others. Look out for these more overt interactions, as well as more subtle actions linked to solitude, like skipping lunch breaks, not participating in meetings, working in isolation or declining social events. Create opportunities to talk whenever you can, whether that’s in one-on-one meetings or informal workshops for the whole team.

4. Increased turnover

In any company, people come and go – but if you’re experiencing a serious increase in turnover, it may be a sign of poor management and unhappy staff. People don’t generally leave jobs on a whim, and while sometimes it might just be that they’ve found a job they prefer, often it’s due to an unsupportive or actively harmful working culture. Sometimes, if an employee’s mental health is very poor, they may quit simply because they feel they no longer have anything to give, or they won’t be able to get better while working for your company.

Use exit interviews to try to find out the real reasons why people are leaving. Encourage people to speak honestly, without fear of retribution. If their mental health was impacted by bad management or an unhealthy workplace culture, this needs to be addressed immediately.

While these behavioral changes are often easiest to identify, there are a few physcial and pscyhological indicators of poor mental health to watch out for. Mind.org has neatly summarized them in this handy table for quick reference:


Employee performance: 10 things managers should always know

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