Concerned about an employee’s mental health? We discuss making that initial approach

The public conversation around mental health has certainly increased in recent years. The deplorable walls of stigma concerning mental health conditions are quite rightly being broken down as we call for a more tolerant and caring society. Yet, despite this overdue awareness, many of us struggle with how to best approach someone who may be unwell. We want to help, yet we don’t always know how to start. This situation can be magnified even further in the workplace, where the employer has a duty of care to their employees.

It has been reported that severe mental health difficulties have risen during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is estimated that at least one in four of us will experience a mental health condition each year in the UK. This figure is even higher within the veterinary profession where the ratio of deaths by suicide is four times that of the general population, and double that of other healthcare sectors.

The reasons behind the disproportionally high rate of ill mental health in our profession is not yet fully understood; with hypotheses suggesting working hours, client expectations, euthanasia and the perpetual drive for high achievement as potential causative factors. What is clear, however, is the need to address it – compassionately, confidently and without judgement.

How can I tell if an employee has a mental health condition?

The truth is that is you probably can’t – it is often invisible to the casual observer. How many times have we reacted in shock when a well-known, gregarious and upbeat celebrity speaks of their mental health illness? It is often the most confident who have sadly learned how to wear the socially-acceptable mask in order to hide their internal experience. We therefore need to be alert to subtle signs that someone may be unwell. Warning signs may include:

  • changes in sleeping patterns (insomnia and/or oversleeping) and lethargy
  • changes in weight and eating habits
  • hair loss, decline in personal care and/or obsessing over appearance
  • changes in mood and behaviour – sometimes dramatic and unpredictable
  • increased sensitivity to perceived criticism
  • restlessness and anxiety
  • social withdrawal – including a reduction in ‘chit-chat’ at work and during staff break times
  • a loss of interest in hobbies
  • a drop in functioning and difficulty in concentrating and making decisions
  • complaints of nausea, perspiration, headaches, heart palpitations and other ailments
  • unexplained cuts, bruises and burns, or keeping their skin fully covered even in hot weather
  • increased absenteeism and/or poor punctuality
  • increased use of alcohol
  • an observation or feeling that the person “is not quite right”.

It is always best to address any mental health concern with a genuinely caring, open and confidential approach – but don’t make assumptions. Invite the employee for a friendly catch-up and make an effort to create a welcoming environment. This is not the time for strict formalities and it is imperative that the staff member knows in advance that they are not being given a performance review. An unwell employee is most likely all-too-aware that they are not at their best, and focusing the meeting on performance will only reinforce any distorted thinking patterns. The emphasis of the conversation must be on their wellbeing – that you are concerned and that you want to help.

The key here is listening, but don’t be surprised if they do not immediately open up. They may not, as yet, have admitted even to themselves that there is a problem and they most certainly will not wish to appear ‘weak’ in front of the boss. The person may have genuine concerns that their career will be jeopardized if they are seen to be struggling, and this belief can hinder that important first step of asking for help. In this situation, it can help to reassure the employee that they are in a safe environment and that all conversations will be held in strict confidence. Again, stress that you are concerned about them – not just as an employer, but as a friend – and that together you can come up with a support plan.

If the employee denies that there is anything wrong, but you are still concerned, do not force the issue but arrange to have another informal catch-up in a few days’ time so that you can keep the conversation open. It does not hurt either to privately hand them the telephone number for Vetlife – they may be embarrassed by the suggestion but you never know when they may need it.

Ideally, we should already be having regular, individual and informal catch-ups with our staff members. These one-to-ones provide the opportunity to get to know our employees on a more personal level, to ask how they are feeling, and to offer us the insight to notice any subtle changes in their wellbeing.

What is most important, however, is that warning signs are not ignored, and that any unwell employee is assured that neither they, nor their career, will be judged or viewed negatively because of ill mental health.

In our next FIVP newsletter: we discuss how to support an employee with a mental health condition.