Getting to know staff ‘one of the biggest things’ for addressing mental health

Workplace issues like missed deadlines or tardiness may mean employees are being careless or not managing their time well, but they could also be the signs of a much bigger problem, an expert suggested last week.

During a Canadian Pension and Benefits Institute webinar on mental health on Wednesday, Jonathan Zinck, a wellness facilitator at Morneau Shepell Ltd., said what employers and coworkers see is often far less than what’s really happening in someone’s life. “If we see a troubled employee in the workplace . . . if cracks are starting to show at work, then usually that means things are bad.”

Read: What can employers do to create psychologically healthy workplaces?

Zinck emphasized that employers and colleagues need to be proactive, not just reactive, on the mental-health front. “When someone is healthy, there are things you can do to make it a more supportive place. Getting to know them would be one of the biggest things.”

By getting to know employees, employers and colleagues can recognize when things begin to change, said Zinck. Dianne in accounting, who usually dresses well, starts to look a bit dishevelled. High-performing Alex, who’s always at work an hour early, has slowly started coming in after 10 a.m. Zinck noted the changes could be signs that something isn’t right and are things employers may overlook if they don’t take the time to get to know their employees.

Some people may find it difficult to approach their colleagues, said Zinck, but if they suspect something isn’t right, there are ways to do it that make the situation less uncomfortable.

Read: What resources can employers use to assess employee well-being?

First, employers can start the conversation using facts. “Describe exactly what you’ve noticed,” said Zinck. “Don’t say, ‘You’re not yourself,’ or, ‘You don’t seem as committed.’ It’s way too subjective. If you came to me and said, ‘You missed the last four deadlines,’ I can’t argue with the facts.”

An employee may still not open up during those conversations. But it at least shows the employer or coworker is concerned, said Zinck. “You don’t need to dig. You’re not a therapist. You don’t need to ask how bad it is or what’s going on. . . . Just let them know you are there. Ask, ‘How can I help?’”

Zinck suggested those types of actions from managers and coworkers often give people a reality check. “Remember that these people are not weak,” said Zinck. “By addressing them, you’re helping because [they] may not have realized how bad it has gotten.”

Read: 2017 Group Benefits Providers Report: Insurers playing a role amid rising emphasis on mental health

Zinck also noted that employers and coworkers need to listen more and try to solve problems less. “If all you did was [listen], that would be huge,” he said. “When you do this, it’s not going to feel like enough . . . but don’t trust that feeling. If I am the upset person, when you listen, it gives me emotional oxygen.”