One in six people experience mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, and stress is now the number one reason given by employees for taking time off work.  As well as the detrimental effect that mental ill-health has on the lives of individuals, there is tangible evidence of its negative impact on business productivity, with the total cost to UK employers estimated at £34.9 billion each year.  There are, therefore, clear business reasons for employers to support the mental wellbeing of their workforce.  However, small businesses, in particular, can struggle to find the time and resources to fully get to grips with this issue.

Over the summer, we’ll be publishing a series of weekly blogs, providing information and practical advice to smaller employers on how to foster mentally healthy workplace environments.  We’ll start today by looking at how to spot the signs of mental ill-health and what you should do if you think a member of your staff may be struggling.

 Author: Nicole Squires MA, MCIPD, BACP, Head of Employee Wellbeing & Engagement at People Based Solutions.

Spotting the signs that an employee is having mental health issues

Small business owners and/or managers who know their staff well are often best placed to spot any signs of stress or poor mental health at an early stage. Whilst staff may not always disclose a mental health condition, often a change in their behaviour may be a key indicator that they are experiencing distress.  A normally punctual employee might start turning up late, for example, or, conversely, they might start coming in much earlier and working later. Other signs might be tearfulness, headaches, loss of humour and mood changes.

There are a range of mental health problems that individuals can encounter, and each will have a different impact on the individual who experiences them. Problems can range from anxiety and depressive disorders to much more complex and severe mental health illnesses. Whilst individual symptoms will vary widely, here are some potential indicators that employers can look out for.

  • Does the individual appear overly stressed, disturbed or distracted?
  • Do they appear dazed, overly tired, withdrawn or shutdown?
  • Are they fidgety, restless or jumpy?
  • Are they talking incoherently or laughing incongruously?
  • Do they seem over-excited, euphoric, irritable or aggressive?
  • Do they appear to be having illogical or irrational thought processes?
  • Do they keep repeating themselves or obsessing?
  • Do they appear to be taking information in?
  • Do they seem to be responding to experiences, sensations or people not observable by others?

Our Line Manager’s Guide provides further information on how to spot the potential signs of mental ill-health.

Remember, though, there may be no obvious outwards signs that somebody is experiencing a mental health problem, which is why It’s vital to maintain close contact and good communication with staff.

So, what should you do if you suspect an employee may be struggling?

It’s important to be aware that if one or more of the above signs is observed, this does not automatically mean the employee has a mental health problem – it could be a sign of another health issue or something entirely. So, take care not to make assumptions, or listen to third party gossip.  Instead, it’s vital that you talk to the person directly.  Here are some steps that you can take to ensure that you are properly prepared for such conversations:

Ensure you have an understanding of mental health issues
Employers sometimes feel nervous about raising the subject of mental health with employees, often because of a lack of understanding and/or a fear that they may actually make matters worse. Having an appropriate level of knowledge and awareness about mental health issues is, therefore, key to being comfortable talking about them.  For smaller employers, with limited resources, e-learning opportunities can be a cost-effective means of educating themselves, their managers and wider workforce about mental health issues, without it taking up too much time, or requiring time away from the office.  

Be prepared to instigate a conversation
While mental ill-health is a sensitive and personal issue – like any health problem – most people prefer honest and open enquiries over a reluctance to address the issue. Shying away from the subject can perpetuate fear of stigma and increase feelings of anxiety. Often employees will not feel confident in speaking up, so an employer making the first move to open up a dialogue can be vital.  Regular one-to-one meetings are an opportunity to start the conversation and to identify and address issues early on.

Know how to have a mental health conversation
Everybody is different and there is no one way to help someone experiencing mental health problems but, often, the best place to start is to ask how they are. You should speak to them in a private, confidential setting where they feel at ease.  You should explore with them whether any of their difficulties may be work-related and, if so, what they would like you to do to help. Questions should be simple, open and non-judgemental to give the employee an opportunity to explain things in their own words. Our Line Managers’ Guide provides further guidance on how to go about having mental health conversations, including examples of questions that are appropriate to ask and those that should most definitely be avoided!

Be ready to signpost to professional support services
Being alert to the early signs of mental ill health and early intervention can help prevent issues from escalating, but employers should know their limits and be careful not to give specific advice on mental health conditions.  It’s, therefore, important that, if necessary, you are able to sign-post individuals to appropriate external support services, so that they can receive the professional help they needOften, a good starting point is to encourage the individual to speak to their GP about any mental health issues.  As well as prescribing medication, if considered appropriate, GPs can also refer patients to a counsellor and/or  other psychological support services. 

Resources, such as the Mind Infoline are useful sources of information and can help employers and employees to find out about what services are available locally. 

People Based Solutions is an HR and Workplace Health & Safety support company, specialising in supporting small and medium sized businesses. If you would like to know more about how we can help you with the issues covered in this blog, or with any other HR or Health & Safety matters, call us on 01925 425 857, send an e-mail to or click here to visit our website.




People Based HR