How to Recognise Mental Challenges in Employees

9 May ‘23
5 min
Gecontroleerd door Psychologist Kim Schlüter
Sometimes you notice someone behaving differently than usual. A little more absent or distant, or maybe just irritable or busy. This is perfectly normal; nobody is happy all the time. But a shift in someone’s behaviour sometimes has a deeper cause.


As a manager, it is important to keep an eye on how your employees are doing. By knowing what to look out for, you can offer colleagues timely support or further help.


Characteristics of mental challenges at work


Research shows that 60-75 per cent of people face mental challenges at some point in their lives, including stress, negativity, or lack of self-confidence. Thus, it is not surprising that someone in your team finds themselves in such a situation.


But how do you recognise when someone is not feeling well? And when does that indicate mental challenges? Psychologist Kim Schlüter explains what to look out for and what you can do.


Behavioural changes


Your behaviour is determined by how you feel. If someone is not comfortable in their skin, you will notice it in the other person’s behaviour. 


Kim explains: “It can be different for everyone. Some people become quieter and move a bit more into the background, while others might react irritably and quickly snap out of it or run away from the situation.” 


Signals to watch out for are: 


  1. Quickly distracted
  2. Restless behaviour
  3. Difficulty controlling emotions
  4. Impatient
  5. Reduced interest
  6. Low in energy
  7. Irritable or easily irritated
  8. Separate from the rest
  9. Gloom
  10. Nervous or tense behaviour


Be aware that you cannot always signal everything someone is experiencing. In a conversation, if necessary, you can ask about any other signs, such as tension, decreased appetite (or just eating more) or poor sleep.


“It is good to be aware that everyone has a down day or week from time to time,” Kim continues. “For example, it doesn’t necessarily follow that irritability or a lack of focus in someone immediately indicates a major problem.”


The general advice? “Proactively ask how things are going the moment you notice something, not just after a while. The main thing is to open the dialogue, show that you are there for someone and create a safe environment. You can also be extra alert to this after a major event in someone’s life.” 


And make it clear that it is also okay to first talk to other people about it and only return to the manager when the employee is ready.

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What can you do as a manager?


As much as you would like to, as a manager, you cannot solve someone’s challenges. Ultimately, it’s the employee alone who can do this. What you can do is pay close attention to the people in your team and create a safe environment where everyone can openly share their struggles and feelings with each other.


Listen and show interest 


“Show genuine interest in how someone is doing. Give people space to share their stories, and listen. Don’t underestimate the two, often we find listening and creating space the hardest thing to do. Then offer help or support if someone needs it,” tips Kim.


Ask questions


Be aware that people sometimes play down their problems simply because they don’t want to burden others with them. Do not be afraid to ask further questions when someone tells you something and let them know they can talk to you.


How? Kim advises, “The familiar ‘listen, summarise, ask through’ is a good way to do that. Address comments that downplay the situation (such as “it’s not so bad”) or words with connotations (such as “annoying”, “irritating” or “challenging”). Let the other person know that you see and hear them (“it’s also a lot together”) if this is how it appears to you. This is how you let the other person know it is okay to elaborate.”


For example, you can ask “What exactly do you mean by…”, “What exactly do you find difficult about…” or “If I understand correctly…”.


When someone comes to you, they appreciate it when you listen and show genuine interest without immediately offering solutions. Just sharing itself can be helpful. And remember to emphasise that these conversations remain between you and the employee. 


Schedule regular check-ins


Schedule a check-in with your employees regularly, say every month, to talk about mental well-being, workload, stress and other possible factors affecting someone’s job happiness. This could include what someone wants to develop, for example, as well as impeding factors.


Notice something is up in between these check-ins? Touch on the topic in a sensitive way: ask how things are going and, if possible, stay nearby for a while so the staff member can come to you himself.


What if there is more to it?


Listening is the most important step in giving mental challenges or problems space. Point it out if you don’t know the topic and discuss what may be needed together. Let the employee articulate this themselves. 


Often a listening ear is enough, but sometimes more is needed, such as a conversation with the company doctor or HR. Discuss this openly with the employee.


Are there heavier, more concerning themes at play? Then don’t be afraid to ask further questions, but also to indicate that you don’t know how best to deal with this and that you will look for appropriate help together. 


OpenUp supports both employees and managers in this. Want to know how? Schedule a no-obligation demo.

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