Making sense of mental health: don’t put off workplace discussions

As HR professionals we are often called upon by companies to help support employees who are struggling with their mental health.

Employers and managers often feel they lack the knowledge and skills to have these sensitive discussions themselves – or they are under the impression that you need specific training in order to be able to help the employee.

In some serious cases a professional medical intervention is required, but more often this is not the case and all that’s needed is the time and confidence to start the discussion.

We see this situation mostly linked with two increasingly common concerns, and reasons for employee absence – anxiety and depression.

We often find that once an employee mentions one or both of these two conditions to their manager, that manager distances themselves from the problem, fearing that they will say or do the wrong thing – or believing that the employee needs the help and support of trained medical professionals.

Although professional support is sometimes required, more often than not the line manager can play an important role in getting their employee back on track.

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Building confidence when having discussions with employees

These two terms, anxiety and depression, tend to be used together or become interchangeable when employees are describing their concerns, because they can have similar emotional and physical symptoms.

However, they do not refer to the same health condition. The key difference between anxiety and depression is that one refers to a single illness and the other to a group of conditions – read on for a more detailed explanation.

For both conditions there are two main categories of treatment, psychological therapy and medicine. These will be tailored to the individual and their situation. A doctor may also look to address lifestyle issues as part of the treatment, if they think these may be contributing to the depression or anxiety.

Tackling issues without medical help

That said, many team members try to work through their problems without medical intervention.  This might be due to the fear of side effects from medication or the delays in getting a therapist appointment. In any situation the employer and the employee’s line manager can have a real and positive impact on the employee’s recovery.

The confidence to start up a discussion or offer support can be the main barrier preventing a line manager from taking this first step and rather than addressing this, it can often feel easier to pass the problem off as “something for the professionals”.

If a member of your team is struggling with their mood, or some of the symptoms mentioned here it is really important that they have people to talk to. You don’t need to be medically trained in order to listen and offer support and encouragement.

You don’t even need to offer advice, although it might help to do some research, so you can signpost them to organisations or help groups who might be able to offer more targeted support.

The fact you have taken the time to listen and to care will make a big difference to your team member and it might be all they need, especially after the last year when many people have felt isolated and lonely. 

Confidence and communication skills are key to helping both parties in these situations. Often when we are starting discussions into subjects which we are less confident about there is the temptation to put barriers up, or to avoid the matter. But in situations like this, avoidance could cause the team member to feel more isolated and increase the chance of absence from work.

Understanding depression

Depression has lots of different symptoms, and it may feel very different to different people, but the term depression refers to a single condition.

Depression is defined by having a low mood and/or a loss of interest or enjoyment in most activities, for two weeks or longer. These are seen as ‘core symptoms’ of depression. There are a range of other mood-related symptoms that a person with depression may experience, including:

  • guilt
  • helplessness
  • feelings of worthlessness, low self-esteem or low confidence
  • thoughts of death or suicide.

In recent years we have seen an increasing number of GPs stating ‘low mood’ on employee ‘Med 3’ certificates, also known as ‘fit notes’. This usually demonstrates the fact that although the employee may not be medically depressed, they are suffering some of the symptoms we associate with depression and would benefit from some time away from work.

Understanding anxiety

Anxiety is a term that can have a few different meanings. We all feel anxious sometimes and this can be a helpful reaction to alert us to danger or risk. Anxiety in this sense is often used simply to describe that feeling, rather than being intended to refer to a medical condition.

When we use anxiety in a medical sense, it actually describes a group of conditions, which includes some less-common conditions such as phobias and panic disorders. The most common is generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) which affects around four in every 100 people in the UK.

Generalised anxiety disorder centres on two ‘core symptoms’, which are:

  • excessive anxiety
  • worry on most days for more than six months, and difficulty controlling these feelings.

There are further symptoms beyond these that are sometimes experienced, such as feeling on edge, or restless and irritable. With generalised anxiety disorder you may feel very worried about a range of everyday things and there may not be one obvious, logical cause for your anxiety.

The cross over between anxiety and depression

There are quite a few physical symptoms that appear in both generalised anxiety disorder and depression, which is often why we’re hearing team members increasingly referring to both conditions to explain how they feel. These can include:

  • fatigue or tiredness
  • poor concentration
  • being fidgety or unable to sit still
  • difficulty sleeping.

But there are also physical symptoms unique to both conditions. In depression, physical symptoms might include:

  • weight changes, often caused by changes in appetite
  • being slower in your movements.

The physical effects of generalised anxiety disorder include:

  • muscle tension and aches
  • headaches
  • sweating
  • dizziness
  • a fast heartbeat and shortness of breath.

You can have anxiety and depression at the same time

Depression and generalised anxiety disorder have some distinct features, and some that overlap. To complicate things further, it’s actually possible for someone to experience depression and anxiety at the same time.

In fact, it’s not just possible, it’s quite common. Around half of people with generalised anxiety disorder will also have depression. When the conditions coexist like this, they can be more severe and long-lasting.

Many experts actually view ‘mixed anxiety and depressive disorder’ (MADD) as a separate category in itself. This is where someone may have symptoms of both conditions, but not severe enough to have a formal diagnosis of either condition. This combination can cause considerable distress and affect someone’s daily life.

If you would like to learn more about how we can support your managers to develop the confidence to start difficult discussions and support employees who are struggling, please get in touch. We have a range of training options ready to go, which can be delivered in-house or virtually.