How you can help yourself and your employees before it’s too late.
I should have known there was an issue the day I decided to take my laptop to bed. As a writer, I am one of the lucky ones who get to work from home and I have made a conscious effort to keep my work at my desk, away from the rest of my apartment. But that day even sitting at my desk felt too hard.
Fatigue had set in and I felt like I was moving through molasses. As a sufferer of generalised anxiety, sometimes bed is a safe place away from the world. By working from my bed I was trying to have my cake and eat it too. Feel safe, and get my work done. But I failed to address the actual issue – I was stressed and missing the red flags that were telling me my mental health was in decline.
It can be hard to see the red flag when you’re in the moment, but it’s impossible to see them if you don’t know what to look for. HRM asked the experts what the main signs of poor mental health are and what leaders can do to help.
Red flag 1: Sleeplessness and fatigue
Fatigue is often the first red flag people notice in themselves. The worst part is that it’s not always due to a lack of sleep. It’s frustrating getting a full night’s sleep and still being exhausted in the morning. If you are getting your recommended eight hours you might be in the minority.
Neurologists in the US have seen an almost 15 per cent increase in the use of prescription sleep medication since the start of COVID-19. In the UK, researchers surveyed people over March and April and found worry-related sleeplessness has shot up – in particular among female respondents – from 18.9 per cent in March to 31.8 per cent in April. While we don’t have data about Australia’s sleeplessness, anecdotal evidence suggests we’re in the same camp.
Clinical psychologist Olga Lavalle says sleeplessness and fatigue is a common sign of deeper mental health issues. But, there are ways to combat it.
“At night, you need to switch off. Stop checking emails, stop being distracted by work-related tasks,” she says.
“Prior to going to bed, it’s important that you do something you enjoy and it is actually relaxing. That could be a warm bath or shower. There are lots of mindfulness apps which take you through guided meditations and they can really help your brain switch to relax mode.”
If you’re like me, you might be going to bed with a head full of things you need to do the next day. Lavalle suggests writing down that to-do list so you’re not mulling over it while you try to sleep.
One tip that works for me is deciding whether something is actionable right now or not. If I find myself worrying about a work issue at 1 AM I ask myself, “Is this something I can fix right now?” Usually, the answer is no. It takes some time but I’ve gotten good at putting those worries aside to be addressed when it’s not the wee hours of the morning.
Red flag 2: Irritability and social withdrawal
“We often see people withdrawing from others. That can be friends or family or others in the workplace. Perhaps they stop eating lunch with their colleagues or withdraw from general chitchat. That’s a pretty clear sign,” says Lavalle.
COVID-19 has made it more difficult to detect social changes in our colleagues. As HRM has discussed previously, it’s a lot harder to notice when someone is having a rough day if you can’t see them.
“Sometimes people begin withdrawing from their own family or people they live with. We’ve found people in isolation are spending more time in their bedroom or not wanting to spend time with their partner or family.”
Irritability goes hand in hand with this social withdrawal. Psychologist Donna Cameron from The Couch Therapy Group refers to it as your “‘stress cup’ overflowing, and [your] body releasing stress and tension through the emotions, anger and tears when it does”.
This can cause significant damage at work, as research shows our bad mood can influence others. It also has a snowball effect as we get frustrated at ourselves for our lack of emotional control. If I’m frustrated and on the verge of tears at work, the first person I’m angry at is myself and my brain will immediately go into what I (and my therapist) call the “not good enough spiral”.
It can be difficult to get out of that spiral. It takes time and work to notice when it’s happening, but if you can notice the spiral, it’s the first step to getting out of it. In these instances, Lavalle suggests trying to remove yourself from the situation mentally.
“If you can, step outside for a moment and take in your surroundings. If there is a park across the road, try to notice what’s in the park. If there is play equipment, what does it look like? Let yourself be distracted by these things and it will help you clear your mind.”
Red flag 3: Lack of concentration
“Not being able to concentrate is another common sign,” says Lavalle. Lack of concentration can then lead to feelings of anxiety or loss of motivation.
Cameron says memory problems are another symptom of poor mental health which can be very frustrating at work.
“[People] may find it difficult to concentrate and complete simple tasks and they need to write everything down,” she says.
“When problems occur, they may find it difficult to problem-solve the situation and instead they will get more stressed and irritated by this change or challenge that they did not predict.”
The frustration caused by this can make workers feel like they need to double down and work harder – leading to panic working and burn out – or they might take the opposite route and try to ignore the problem or put things off.
Lavalle suggests trying to work in small bursts, if you can, instead of committing to large blocks of time spent working.
“If you’re working from home, your work isn’t broken up by chatting to your colleagues or other workplace distractions so the easiest way to replicate that is working in blocks of time. Maybe you can work for one and a half hours then step away from the computer for a bit.
“It is also worth trying to work out when you are motivated. If you’re not on a deadline, maybe you work better in the afternoon or evening so organise your timetable to do more work then.”
Help from the top
Stuart Taylor, CEO at Springfox workplace wellbeing experts, says it is important leaders are aware of the red flags so they can help their employees. He believes there are three ways employers can create an environment where staff feel comfortable coming forward about their concerns.
- Practice compassion: let employees know it’s “okay not to be okay”. If this isn’t established, workers will keep their heads down and that will only make things worse.
- Frequent communication: stay in touch with your employees and make sure you’re contactable when they need you. A survey by Springfox over April and May found a lot of respondents were feeling lonely. Keeping in touch could combat these feelings.
- Show vulnerability: staff often assume their leaders are indomitable. They are more likely to come forward with their struggles if they know you understand.
“It’s no longer just about how productive companies can be – the priority should be people. You can’t be commercially viable if you have a broken workforce,” says Taylor.
“There is a mental health tsunami coming and it is critical leaders step up and do what they can to stop it.”