Subtle signs can show mental health strain in employees

How easy is it to recognize when an employee is having an off-day or dealing with mental health issues? 

Not that easy, as pandemic times have shown.

Twenty-one months into a global pandemic, some behaviours seem almost normal because everyone has felt the strain. However, there are tell-tale signs of deeper issues, said Beverly Beuermann-King of R’n’R Consulting during the Advancing Women in Agriculture conference on Nov. 23. 

Why it matters: The pandemic has caused additional strain in the workplace so employers must be sensitive to employee stress levels and mental illness.

She used ‘Rena,’ a usually stellar employee, as her example. 

“You think she’s struggling, but you’re not exactly sure. What does that look like?” she asked, while elaborating on the example. 

Rena is an outgoing, stellar employee who shows up on time and is focused. But lately, she’s been late or absent. She needs increased supervision and her productivity is down or inconsistent. Perhaps she’s developed strained relationships with co-workers, or her inability to concentrate has led to a violation of safety procedures or she’s exhibiting changes in her health and hygiene. 

Instead of accepting the consequences of her actions, Rena is unusually quick to blame others or make excuses, and her boss is concerned she might be relying on drugs or alcohol to make it through the day. 

“Through COVID, we’ve seen a few things happen and so in particular we see where people are stuck when it comes to mental health issues, where they’re not able to move forward,” said Beuermann-King.

She said there are five zones of the mental health continuum, ranging from excelling to in-crisis, with the associated symptoms or indicators of stress level. 

Those working in high-demand, low-control environments are at risk for high stress, which can lead to chaos.

At the start of the pandemic, conditions required high effort but also offered high reward, with employers and leaders thanking team members for adjusting to a rapidly evolving workplace. 

Now, those niceties are gone but high demands continue, providing greater risk of mental health challenges including depression and anxiety.

The rate of moderate to severe burnout globally is at 40 per cent, said Beuermann-King. That’s up 15 per cent from pre-COVID. About 79 per cent of people will feel some symptoms of burnout, she added. 

“Fifty-two per cent of us have said that we are much more stressed out than we were prior to the pandemic, which isn’t really a surprise. But I think the level and the fact that it has lasted for this length of time is going to be really important as we move forward.” 

Ten per cent of Canadians will deal with depression at some point in their lives, but only one in three will reach out for help, and 15 per cent of those will deal with severe untreated depression, she said. 

“Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but that stigma and bias that we have? That changes all of this because we prevent people from seeking help, we prevent them from being able to live full and flourishing lives,” Beuermann-King said. 

“So how do we break the silence? We need to educate. We need to educate ourselves. We need to educate our communities. We need to talk about mental illness and we need to talk about depression.” 

In a workplace scenario, people often don’t want to reach out for help because they’re concerned it might affect their opportunities for promotion. People may question their judgment or feel judged in general. 

“How do you have one of these supportive conversations because it feels awkward? We weren’t trained on how to do this,” she said. “What if I say something and I say the wrong thing? What if I make it worse? What if there’s nothing going on? And I’ve made a big deal out of it?” 

Beuermann-King said by using the ALEC model, Ask, Listen, Encourage and Check-in, the conversation can be simple but go beyond, ‘how are you.’ 

To be effective, she said it’s critical to start a conversation in a safe and comfortable location. Then, point to unusual behaviours and speak naturally.

Listen without judgment, hearing what they say and also what they don’t say. It’s human nature to fill gaps in conversation, Beuermann-King noted, but it’s important to let silences linger to give the person an opportunity to decide what they want to share. 

“Encourage is all about taking some sort of action; it’s about the next step,” she said. “It’s about getting help for that person so that they don’t feel like they’re in it alone.” 

Actions could involve organizing different work accommodations, changes to working hours to lower stress, or encouragement to see a doctor or spiritual advisor. 

Finally, she advises checking in with the person, just as you would for someone who’s had a heart issue or been diagnosed with illness. Find out how they’re doing and let them know you’re still there, she said. 

Use affirming language that recognizes how hard it is, ask how they’re coping and what you can do to help. Don’t minimize a person’s experience by saying it could be worse, Beuermann-King advised.

“It’s always coming from a place of caring and compassion. Look for ways of reducing the stigma, watch your language, watch that you’re not making it more difficult.

“You’re not telling those jokes about that crazy person or setting that up so that they would never want to come to talk to you because you’ve made fun of somebody in a similar position.”