Mental health during a pandemic: how to spot problems among your team

By on 02/02/2021 | Updated on 02/02/2021
Isolation: it can be hard to spot if a colleague is struggling with their mental health, especially when many people are working remotely. Credit Max van den Oetelaar/Unsplash

COVID-19 is triggering and exacerbating mental health problems across the world. Wellbeing consultant Ramin Salehi explains how to spot the signs that a colleague is struggling and embark on a delicate conversation

COVID-19 has not only disrupted mental health services across the globe, but also increased demand for them, according to a survey by the World Health Organisation published last autumn. The effects of the pandemic – including fear, bereavement, isolation and financial loss – “are triggering mental health conditions or exacerbating existing ones”, it says.

So it’s essential that we look out for colleagues, many of whom have been working in crisis mode for a prolonged period of time. And here, there are two initial challenges: recognising when someone is struggling, especially when many people are working remotely; and knowing what to do if you spot something.

The solutions to both these problems will be different for every individual, team and manager – there is no one-size-fits all approach when it comes to mental wellbeing. But here are some broad tips to help you spot that something is amiss and make space for your colleague to share.

Signals to watch out for

Sustained behaviour change – whether online or in person – is one of the main signs that someone’s mental wellbeing might be under strain. Changes can include how they communicate, the way they respond to situations, their energy and enthusiasm, time-keeping or even their appearance. If this happens over a number of days, it is worth paying attention to; if it continues into one or two weeks, managers may wish to check in (see tips below).

Consider positive changes too.If someone who is usually perhaps low or reserved suddenly turns a corner and becomes the most garrulous person in the room, it may be worth checking in with them. This can be hard to gauge, but positive behaviour change can be a sign of acute mental health crises.

Culture is key

Leaders must establish a culture of emotional safety, where it is the norm for people to share how they feel and team members feel comfortable doing so. But this needs to be built up slowly: if you have always been an on-the-ball boss focused on function and execution, then suddenly asking someone how they feel might be both uncomfortable for them and unproductive.

Team meetings are a good place to start building such a culture. Try acknowledging the situation by saying something like: “I know this is hard for everyone, and I want us to help each other through this.” You can also make sharing emotions the norm by asking open questions – such as “how are you feeling at the moment?” – in group meetings.

There are a few benefits to this approach. Firstly, it sets the tone and builds the culture where it’s ok to be open about challenges. Secondly, asking colleagues about their feelings in a one-to-one setting will not be jarring and no one will feel singled out if they are used to the question being asked regularly among their team. Furthermore, even in large teams, you can gauge reactions and get signals that something is amiss. You might ask the question a dozen times before you get responses, but it will be worth it in the long run.

Whether in a team meeting or one-to-one setting, it’s important to ask open questions. If someone asks: “Are you ok?” it’s easy to answer: “Yes thanks”. Even asking: “How are you?” can elicit the default response: “I’m fine”. Try tweaking the question slightly to: “How are you feeling today/at the moment?” Even this small change can help people pause and check in with themselves before responding.

This is just a start and there are many more ways you can build emotional safety into your work culture. But this may just help you spot a sign that a colleague is struggling with their mental health.

How to approach a conversation about mental wellbeing

If you think someone is under strain, it’s important to “stop for the one”. This means carving out time to spend with that individual to talk about them as a person, not their job, deliverables or objectives. This takes bravery – and can be daunting for managers – but, done well, it really makes a difference to people.

The first thing to do is make time for such a conversation and plan it – do not approach it in an ad hoc way when you have a couple of spare minutes. If you are going to step into a space and engage someone with how they are feeling, make plenty of time for them and plan your approach.

It’s important to keep the conversation positive and supportive. Open questions – “How are you feeling at the moment?” or “How are you feeling today? – are useful starting points. If this elicits a response, you can explore further, for example asking “How long have you felt like this?”, “How does work contribute to this?” and “How can we help?”

If your colleague talks openly, a key first step is to acknowledge what has been communicated. You can do this by saying something like: “I appreciate you telling me this. I know this has not been easy for you, so thank you for sharing this with me.” This puts a flag in that moment that you know it was significant, especially if someone is sharing their concerns for the first time.

How we ask questions is as important as what we ask. Hard conversations like these are best done in person; but if you are working virtually, have your camera on. Keep your body language relaxed and open: sit back in your chair with your arms by your side and maintain eye contact. Try not to rush: switch off all distractions, listen actively, and feel free to take your time and really consider your next question or comment. It’s important your colleague feels that you have plenty of time.

At the end of the conversation, whether your colleague has shared their concerns or not, it is important to “lower the bridge”. This can be as simple as saying, “I will check in with you again soon but I want you to know that communication is open any time if there’s anything you need to talk about.” This can reassure people who have not felt comfortable to share that you are there if they need you, which reduces isolation. If someone has been more open, it is important to follow up, check in and action anything you have planned together.

Tips to remember

Conversations about mental health can be daunting for managers. You might worry about saying the wrong thing, making the situation worse, or feel out of your depth. It can be helpful to think about how we train physical first aiders: people are trained to make the person as safe and comfortable as possible until professional help arrives. It’s the same with mental health: you aren’t expected to diagnose and solve all of people’s problems. All you need to do is provide a bridge for someone to access the help they need.

Ramin Salehi is mental health first aid trainer and managing director of Cornerstone Training, a workplace wellbeing consultancy. He also supports assistive technology experts Microlink with special projects.

You can call The Samaritans on 116 123 or by email at [email protected][email protected] if you are in the UK or Ireland. There is a directory of support services in the US here. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

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