Many employees try to carry on with work while dealing with stresses in their personal lives — and many wait too long before sharing their difficulties with their colleagues or managers, said Valérie Fernandez, senior advisor for workplace health best practices and strategic support for group insurance at Beneva Inc., during Benefits Canada’s 2023 Mental Health Summit.

“No one is immune to facing challenges or difficult situations and it’s also completely normal that it may affect our performance at work, depending on the seriousness of the situation, even if we try to make it appear as little as possible.”

Strengthening workplace social ties is an important “prevention lever” that employees can pull to help support their psychological health, she said, noting research has demonstrated the link between social ties and feelings of emotional support, social integration, the sense of being useful and the confirmation of one’s worth.

Read: Report finds employees less likely to say employer making positive changes to support mental health in 2023

The coronavirus pandemic brought home the importance of social connection, with many employers now tasked with juggling the benefits of remote working against the potential impact on employees’ social lives. “It’s important to be aware of the day-to-day well-being of our coworkers and even more so with a hybrid [working] model where it could be more challenging to detect those signs of psychological distress,” said Fernandez.

Coworkers can help each other by providing operational support, such as assistance with tasks and responsibilities that have become overwhelming, as well as emotional support, including kindness and thoughtfulness between coworkers that contributes to a healthy and pleasant work environment. Supportive colleagues can also be an effective referral network to mental-health solutions and other health resources available in the company’s benefits plan, she noted. 

Strong collegial relationships can also help in other stages of the employee experience, including taking and returning from disability or maternity leave, to ensure the person doesn’t feel disconnected from the workplace and nervous about their return.

Read: Employers taking holistic approach to mental health as coronavirus pandemic wanes: expert

In an example from one of Beneva’s educational sessions, Fernandez noted a manager shared his experiences with going on leave twice, first for a physical injury and then for a mental-health issue. While many colleagues reached out during his first leave, he experienced almost total silence during his second leave, which made him feel isolated and unappreciated by his colleagues.

She suggested employers keep in mind the stigma around certain types of leaves and proactively encourage managers and colleagues to stay in touch with a coworker on leave. “It’s very important to keep that in mind during a leave of absence and find a way to reach out to a coworker in a benevolent and sensitive way.”

Read more coverage of the 2023 Mental Health Summit.