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'MANY EMPLOYEES FEAR OPENING UP IF THEY'RE STRUGGLING'

Dane Krambergar, head of client services – workplace wellbeing for mental health charity Mind, says the symptoms of depression and the causes of someone having suicidal thoughts vary from one person to another, but employers have a responsibility to provide solutions and support to everyone.

10th September 2021


Trigger warning – this article discusses suicide

Stress, anxiety and depression are common in every workplace, regardless of size or sector.

At Mind, we did a study of almost 44,000 employees and found that more than half (53 per cent) are affected by poor mental health in their current workplace. Commonly cited causes include long working hours, lack of support from colleagues and managers, and excessive workload.

Unfortunately, many employees fear opening up if they're struggling. They often worry their employer will see them as weak or unable to cope. The stigma around mental health in the workplace may be putting off many people from getting the help they need.


There are many misconceptions about colleagues with mental health problems. It's important that employees – especially HR and line managers – don’t make assumptions about a co-worker's mental health and how it might affect their ability to do their job. People with mental health problems can and do make a valuable contribution to the workplace. It’s just that some of us might need extra support from our employers to thrive in our roles.

Being under pressure is a normal part of life. In small doses, pressure can help you take action, feel more energised and get results. But if that pressure turns into unmanageable, long-term stress, it can negatively affect our physical and mental health.

Stress isn't a psychiatric diagnosis, but it is linked to our mental health. It can cause mental health problems or make existing problems worse.


The causes of suicidal feelings and actions are complex. They vary from one person to another. Most of the time, there’s no single event or factor that leads someone to take their own life. We know our work environment and things like the pandemic and economic recession play a role in our mental health.

Symptoms of mental health problems vary considerably from person to person. There are some common warning signs, including becoming more irritable, hopeless or pessimistic, self-critical, disorganised or forgetful, eating or sleeping more or less than usual and losing interest in things that normally give pleasure.

If an employee is low or anxious, they might feel like withdrawing from those around them, which makes it difficult for others to offer support. Employers and managers need to be able to identify when staff are struggling and make sure they know where to go for support. This has become even more challenging with staff working remotely over the past year-and-a-half, which is why it’s important to offer a range of wellbeing initiatives and provide regular opportunities for staff to say how they’re feeling.

If someone close to you doesn't seem themselves and you’re worried they may be reaching a crisis point, ask them how they feel. Listen non-judgementally. You don't have to be an expert on mental health.

Many people find it hard to talk about suicidal feelings – this can be because they’re worried about how others will react or because they can’t find the words. They might hide how they are feeling and convince friends or family that they are coping. So there might not be any signs to indicate something is wrong.


Employers have a responsibility to promote workplace wellbeing and help prevent poor mental health. Actually, this is enshrined in law – including the Equality Act 2010 and Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. Employers have a duty to make “reasonable adjustments” for any member of staff who is disabled, and a mental health problem meets the definition of a “disability” within the Act in certain instances. These adjustments could include changes to roles and responsibilities, working hours and breaks, for example.

Practical solutions needn't be large or expensive. Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), generous annual leave, flexible working hours, buddy systems and subsidised gym membership all make a difference.

Employers need to make sure managers are equipped to spot the early warning signs and support those experiencing mental health problems. Offer mental health awareness training. All managers should be creating a space for their direct reports to talk about issues they're facing – whether personal or professional. Wellness Action Plans are a useful tool for starting the conversation.


Good internal communication helps increase awareness of the support available. And make sure workplace wellbeing initiatives are easy to access. Since we’ve all been working from home, many employers have adapted their offerings – for example, I’ve heard of businesses moving their exercise and meditation classes online.

Another idea is for staff to share tips for overcoming problems or managing a good work/life balance through "lunch and learns" or blog posts.

We all have to take steps to look after our mental health at the moment, as well as keeping an eye out for loved ones. Most of us are feeling more anxious than usual. There's no "normal" way to respond to a pandemic emotionally. Be aware of symptoms in yourself, such as feelings of isolation, lethargy, lack of self-esteem, restlessness or irritability. Let partners, people you live with or friends and family know about possible triggers and what stress and poor mental health looks like for you so that they can spot any deterioration in your mental health.

Try to establish a routine – regular exercise, a healthy diet, a good night's sleep. If changes to your feelings, thoughts and behaviours last longer than two weeks, keep returning or are having an impact on your daily life, it could be that you're experiencing a mental health problem that requires treatment. Talk to someone you trust – a loved one or a health professional.

If you don’t feel you have the sort of relationship with your manager that you could talk openly about your mental health, confide in another colleague. If work is a factor in your poor mental health, speak to your manager about additional support that can be put in place. If you don’t get anywhere with your manager, consider speaking to your manager’s boss if appropriate or your HR team.

You could also try speaking to someone in confidence – for example through an EAP – though this means your manager won’t necessarily be aware that there is a problem to be able to offer any potential solutions.


Research shows that people bereaved by suicide can have a particularly complex set of emotions and can experience additional struggles and dilemmas trying to resolve their grief.

A death by suicide – whether it’s an employee or contractor, or a family member or friend of an employee – can profoundly affect a business. It's really important that employees who have lost a co-worker to suicide know what help and support is available in the workplace and are given space to let you know how they are feeling, through counselling or talking therapies, for instance.

If, as a business, you respond to a colleague’s suicide in the right way, it will help employees come to terms with the loss.

Most importantly, create a culture where employees feel able to disclose their needs and seek services confidentially. When you check in with your colleagues, start with simple, open questions like "How are you feeling right now?" and "How can I support you?"


All employers should consider introducing a workplace suicide prevention programme and work hard to shape a work environment that values its employees and promotes respect, open communication, a sense of belonging and emotional wellbeing, and which encourages people to seek help when they need it.

Education and training on mental health, including suicide awareness, for all employees, especially line managers and HR professionals can be really valuable. Internal communications have a key role when it comes to helping make sure employees are aware of resources and wellbeing support available.

Employers have a crucial role to play in suicide prevention. People in work spend about one third of their lives at their place of employment. Colleagues and line managers can provide an essential social and emotional support network built on shared experiences.

 

Read our introduction to this series and guidelines for reporting and communicating about suicide.

And you can read our other stories on this topic:

Read Caroline's story: 'The more we talk about suicide at work, the less it becomes stigmatised'

Read Gordon's story: 'It is not a weakness to realise there is something wrong and to ask for help'

Read Kiera's story: 'It's vital students believe they are in an environment where they will be emotionally supported'

Read Andrew's story: 'Bring a sense of community into your culture and show you are interested in people'

Read Penny's story: 'Invite someone you have reason to beliueve may be struggling to open up about it'

Read Rachel's story: 'Managers are not counsellors, but our roles involve relevant skills'

Read Karen's story: 'Whatever we did had to be informed by insight and evidence'

 

Talk to someone if you need help

Samaritans is a registered charity providing support to anyone in emotional distress, struggling to cope or at risk of suicide. If you're having a difficult time, or you are worried about someone else, call 116 223 or visit samaritans.org

 

 

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