Red Flags in the Workplace: How to Spot Mental Health Problems


HR Insights for ProfessionalsThe latest thought leadership for HR pros

Monday, August 8, 2022

Identifying the early signs of mental health problems in the workplace can be an important way to ensure employee wellbeing is maintained.

Article 9 Minutes
Red Flags in the Workplace: How to Spot Mental Hea

Being a modern HR department is much more than just dealing with employee complaints as they arise or bringing new staff into the company. It's just as important that you’re able to ensure that the professionals within the business are as happy and healthy within their role as possible.

This, of course, relates to their physical health and ensuring that doing their job is as easy and comfortable for them as possible, but it also includes prioritizing mental health and wellbeing too.

Often the signs of mental illness are a lot more subtle than when an employee is suffering with a physical problem. So how do you spot when a person in your workplace may be struggling with mental health issues?

Mental health in the workplace

The stigma that has traditionally surrounded conversations about mental health has diminished in recent years, but it appears there is still a long way to go before public discussion on this issue is truly widespread and effective.

Employers, in particular, have a key role to play in advancing understanding and acceptance of mental health challenges, simply because the workplace is such a major source of stress and anxiety for so many people.

Learn more: How (and How Not) to Manage Employees with Anxiety

Research carried out in the UK by Benenden Health found that employees viewed increased workload (38%), financial concerns (18%) and bullying (10%) as the biggest causes of mental health issues at work.

Other triggers highlighted by the survey included:

  • Deadlines
  • Workplace culture
  • Job insecurity
  • Managing people
  • Managing clients and customers

Seven out of ten workers said they’d suffered from a mental health-related condition, the most common being stress, anxiety and depression. However, only 44% said they knew a colleague who had experienced a similar issue, suggesting there’s a problem of people not wanting to come forward and talk about mental health.

Separate research has hinted at a similar challenge in Canada. A survey by RBC Insurance found that three-quarters of workers would either not admit (27%) to a boss or co-worker they were struggling mentally, or would be hesitant to do so (48%).

The most common reasons for this reluctance were:

  • The stigma around mental health (45%)
  • Not wanting to be treated differently (44%)
  • Not wanting to be judged (40%)
  • Fear of consequences such as losing their job (36%)
"Canadians fear repercussions if they admit to a mental illness, which may prevent them from getting the help they need." - Maria Winslow, Senior Director of Life and Health at RBC Insurance


Many employers could have a lot to gain from encouraging more open, honest discussion about mental health in the workplace. Talking about the difficulties they face could help people feel less stressed and anxious, which is good for businesses looking to do everything they can to mitigate the effects of mental health challenges.

The impact of poor mental health

Businesses that ignore the issue of mental health could find they’re simply storing up problems that could have major operational and financial consequences in the future.

There’s no denying the economic significance of this issue. According to the World Health Organization, lost productivity resulting from just two of the most common mental disorders - depression and anxiety - is thought to cost the global economy US$1 trillion every year.

In the US alone, depression leads to an estimated 400 million lost workdays a year, with approximately one in five adults experiencing some sort of mental illness every year. Research has also shown that serious mental illness costs American organizations up to $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has estimated the cost of mental health problems in Europe at more than €600 billion ($664.4 billion) - more than 4% of GDP - across the 28 EU member states.

"While many European countries have put in place policies and programs to address mental illness, much more can be done to promote and better manage mental health." - Angel GurrĂ­a, Secretary-General at OECD


4 workplace mental health red flags

Here are several signs of poor mental health in the workplace to watch out for among employees.

1. A performance drop

This may be the first sign that you notice, because it's something that's often closely monitored in the workplace. A drop in performance from an employee who is normally good at their job could suggest that mental health issues are playing a factor.

2. A change in behavior

A sudden change in an employee's behavior is a good sign that something may be affecting them in their private life. Even if it's not a mental health problem, if it's an issue that consistently happens, it's a good idea that their manager talks to them openly about what may be going on at home.

It may be that they’re turning up for work later than normal, suddenly becoming withdrawn and quiet, or having a shorter fuse than usual, but any significant change in an employee could suggest they’re struggling. There are also more subtle signs that people don't often link to depression, anxiety or other mental health problems that can be noticed in the workplace, such as loss of appetite, lack of sleep and concentration issues.

3. Difficulty making decisions

If someone who was once bold and self-assured in making key decisions in their job has become hesitant and indecisive, it could be a sign they’re lacking confidence and questioning their judgment. This could be caused by deeper mental health challenges like anxiety.

There could be other reasons for indecisiveness, of course, so it's important to have a constructive discussion with the employee before jumping to any conclusions.

Whatever the root cause of the issue, encouraging the person to talk about it in a relaxed, no-pressure environment will likely yield positive results.

4. Withdrawal from social activities

Social withdrawal is one of the most common signs that someone is struggling with a mental health issue like depression or anxiety.

If you notice an individual constantly making excuses to get out of work social events or avoiding team lunches, it might be because they find the prospect of socializing too overwhelming.

People shouldn't feel pressured into getting involved in these activities if they don't feel comfortable with it, but make sure they’re given the chance to mix with colleagues and speak to their line manager when they feel ready.

How to give employees the help they need

The growing awareness of mental health problems in the workplace means that they’re being openly discussed more often. Of course, you aren't expected to single-handedly solve employees’ issues, but having a conversation can be an important first step towards helping them get better.

The impact mental health problems can have on a person's physical wellbeing and capacity to work means it's important that managers have a good working relationship with employees. This makes it easier for issues to be flagged up while they’re still minor, allowing you to work with them to ensure they get the help they need.

Here are some basic steps managers can take to help employees overcome mental health concerns in the workplace:

1. Check in regularly

Intentionally checking in with employees about how they’re feeling is essential if you want to create a culture where they are comfortable speaking up about mental health concerns when they need to. Before the pandemic, this was often overlooked.

With more people working from home and in hybrid work environments, it can be especially challenging to notice when someone is struggling.

Checking in means going beyond “how are you?” to ask questions about what employees need and how you can support them. Listening is key, so make sure they feel heard and do your best to facilitate open and honest communication, even when a subject is difficult.

Learn more: 5 Quirky Questions You Should Ask in Your Mental Health Survey

2. Offer flexibility

Being flexible means recognizing that your employees' needs are constantly shifting. Understand that each employee is unique and will therefore have different priorities and struggles.

It’s important to customize how you offer support by considering each individual’s circumstances. Another tangible way to implement flexibility is to advocate for a hybrid approach to work if it’s possible within your organization.

There‘s been a significant shift towards remote and hybrid working since the pandemic. Now, employers and employees are recognizing the benefits of working remotely, at least part of the time, for achieving a better work-life balance.

As detailed in the Owl Labs 2021 State of Remote Work, 86% of people surveyed agreed that working remotely post-pandemic would allow them to better support and be more present with their families, and 82% said it would be better for their mental health.

3. Be open and honest about your own vulnerability

One good thing to come out of the pandemic is that people are talking more openly about mental health than ever before. However, that doesn’t mean that all employees will feel secure opening up and showing their vulnerability, especially in the workplace.

By sharing your own experiences with mental health and being honest about struggles you’ve faced in the past will help employees feel comfortable talking about the challenges they’re facing, and make them more inclined towards asking for help rather than suffering in silence.

4. Be the leader you’d want to have

Everyone has a figure in their lives who has inspired them in some way or another. Perhaps you have a favorite teacher at school or an older relative who you went to for advice.

A good leader isn’t just someone who has the knowledge and skills to ensure work gets done. Consider all the things you’d expect from a great leader and put them into practice.

Beyond committing to regular one-to-one check-ins, it’s important to show compassion, be patient and, above all, listen to what your employees have to say. Encourage other leaders in your organization to do the same and you’ll be able to create a culture of connection where people feel comfortable asking for what they need to stay on top of their mental health inside and outside of work.

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