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Seven simple ways to support colleagues with mental health issues

This article was authored by Matt Georges – one of our inspirational graduates who recently achieved his degree in Economics and Mathematical Sciences, aged 38.

Some years ago, while discussing my depression with a senior manager, I was described by them as being “broken”. I knew they meant to be sympathetic, but it showed me that, while more people are talking openly about mental health at work, there is still lots of misunderstanding.

As a manager, there are symptoms of stress you should be looking for. You should also know what support to offer members of your team suffering from a mental health issue. Having suffered from depression previously, and currently in a managerial role, here are a few of my top tips:

1. Know what symptoms to look out for and what support is available

Knowing what the symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress are will help you to identify if someone on your team might need support. It is also really useful to know what professional support is available either from their GP, or within your organisation. If you’re not familiar with policies, such as reduced working hours or long-term sick leave, speak to your HR department or another manager.

If you are concerned that a colleague is suffering from a mental health issue, suggest that the individual considers speaking to occupational health and check with them afterwards if they have received a good service. It may also be a good idea to recommend they visit their GP to receive a referral for a treatment option, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for example. Again, check that they have received beneficial advice or support.

2. Trust your instincts

Don’t rely too much on assurances from your colleague that they are fine. Obviously, you shouldn’t overrule their opinions, but do trust your instincts and probe a little more if you feel that they have not recognised their symptoms or might be uncomfortable speaking about them.

3. Provide reassurance and show your understanding

It is really important to reassure your colleague, particularly if they are suffering from work-related stress, that offering them support is not an indication that you view them as failures. You are there to provide guidance and support on dealing with the cause of the stress and stop it escalating.

If it is appropriate, suggest that they take a couple of days off work to recuperate. If you do this, you should deal with any workload issues they might be worrying about before they leave or they will just worry about them at home.

4. Nothing is a higher priority than ensuring your staff are not overly-stressed

If your colleague is suffering from stress due to their workload, clichés such as ‘don’t work so hard’ could have the opposite effect on their mental health. You need to focus on what their workload is and actively delegate the lowest priority tasks away from them.

If stress is left to build and leads to related mental health issues, such as depression, you might lose that member of your team for weeks and, once they return to work, it is likely to be several months before they are back up to their former productivity levels

5. Recognise when there is an emergency

  • If a colleague has a breakdown at work, it will be obvious; they will either be extremely agitated and distressed or verging on catatonic. In both cases, the following applies:
  • Ask them to call a relative or close friend to collect them, or call them yourself. Either way, take a note of the number so that you have a contact other than your colleague
  • Ensure they schedule an appointment with their GP and advise the contact person to help them get a second opinion if they haven’t received the advice they expected
  • Both your colleague and the contact person should be reassured that work is not an issue that either of them need to worry about; they may both be concerned that your colleague might lose their job as a result of their mental health
  • Maintain contact with both your colleague and the contact person; have some light office conversation to hand to avoid the conversation being too awkward and stilted
  • Ask your colleague how they feel about other members of the team knowing why they are off work; some will prefer to be open to avoid the rumours, while others will prefer for it to be private

6. The process of returning to work should be a gentle re-introduction

Let your colleague agree their return-to-work date with their GP, but suggest that they come back on a Thursday or Friday so they have a gentle re-introduction. The first thing to do when a person comes back to work is to agree a plan containing things like a schedule of gradually increasing hours of work over the coming months the type of tasks to be undertaken, and frequent one-to-ones. Be clear that nothing is set in stone and that if things don’t go according to plan, the plan can be revised.

Try to dissuade them from over-committing themselves, starting off with short, simple tasks that preferably do not have a fixed deadline, then build complexity in as both you and your colleague feel more confident in understanding what they are capable of achieving.

7. Don’t fuss around them

Fussing and being overly-sensitive will generally have a negative impact on your colleague, but do keep an eye out. Use the regular one-to-ones as the opportunity to speak to them about how they are feeling, rather than asking frequently in front of other team members. Remember that everyone is different, and everyone who experiences anxiety, depression, or stress, experiences it differently.


About the author

After being diagnosed with depression in 2011, Matt Georges decided that his life needed to change. Working in management, he didn’t feel particularly happy in his role. After talking to family and friends he decided to completely change direction – he would become an economist.

Matt sought advice from the economists working at his company and signed up for a diploma in economics with The Open University. Whilst studying an opening for an economist became available at his company so he applied and, even though he was yet to qualify, he impressed the interviewers and was offered the role. Three years later he achieved his degree and, inspired by his own journey, he is helping to set up a national apprenticeship for economists to support others.

Matt recently received his degree at The Open University Barbican Degree Ceremony.

Photo by Matthew Wilkens

Photo by Eldkvast

About Author

Christine is a manager in the Media Relations team within the Marcomms Unit at the OU. She is an experienced BBC journalist, sub-editor and news editor and has a background in regional newspapers. After moving to PR she worked as a press officer for the Zoological Society of London. She has a BSc in Social Sciences with Politics from The Open University; she focuses on STEM stories and widening access in HE. Chris swims regularly and has a pet Tortoise called Lightning.

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