Wellbeing in the workplace: How to spot signs and symptoms of mental illness

July 18, 2017

One in five of the people we work with are likely to be affected by a mental health condition this year.

Nearly half of us will suffer from some form of mental illness during our lifetime.

We spend almost a third of our lives at work and almost a half of our waking hours with our colleagues. That puts us in a prime position to notice changes in them with respect to their behavior, their emotions, their work performance and even their physical appearance. Sustained change in any of these over a period of two or more weeks can be an indicator that someone is developing a mental health problem.

Mental illness, like physical illness, sits on a continuum. Death and disability at one end and full engagement in relationships, productivity at work and a meaningful passionate life at the other.

Early detection and treatment of cancer, for example, greatly enhances our chances for recovery, and the same is true of mental illness. When a colleague sprains their ankle we ask after their wellbeing and we offer help, but what do we do if someone is suffering from a mental health condition?

Mental illness challenges us in many ways. As humans we like certainty and proof, yet mental illness is intangible – it challenges our desire for safety and solidity in a profound way. This can cause discomfort both for those experiencing it, and for those trying to provide support.

Out of uncertainty and discomfort, however comes a drive for knowledge and awareness, which brings with it not only a hint of stability, but also an opportunity to grow. The more we learn about mental illness the more skills we acquire to help us assist others and ourselves to fully engage in life in a meaningful way. The ability to help begins with awareness.

What can we do to build awareness?


  • Set up a formal or informal buddy system. Pair up with a workmate and do a weekly wellness check.
  • Place a calendar on your desk and buy some small round coloured stickers
  • Develop an emotion colour code: Red for feeling bad, orange for not great, yellow for ok, green for good. Get creative and go purple for anger!
  • Every day, according to how you feel place a coloured sticker over that date. This enables you to track sustained changes in mood.
  • Check in with your buddy on a weekly basis over coffee or lunch or a walk. Use your mood chart as a discussion point. A lot of orange or red over several weeks could mean something’s going on.
  • This simple system creates an opportunity to lead into a conversation about wellbeing. It normalizes it and provides an opening into what can be a difficult conversation to have if you are concerned about your colleague’s mental health.

The ability to identify changes in our colleagues behaviour or state of wellbeing and knowing how to have a conversation with them about that empowers us all to make a huge difference to someone’s life- and possibly even save it.

Signs and symptoms

The signs and symptoms of depression or anxiety can be difficult to interpret in the context of a real person. Many people will experience some signs of both depression and anxiety and in the early stages the symptoms may be more subtle than those detailed below.

Here are two examples that highlight some possible signs and symptoms:

1. Depression feels like heaviness and darkness even in bright sunlight. It feels like I am drowning when faced with even the most basic of decisions. I’m irritable. Apathy pervades everything. I can’t feel pleasure or joy anymore. I don’t care how I look. I feel lonely, isolated and disconnected.

2. Anxiety feels like fear. It feels like my heart is racing as fast as my thoughts are. I can’t get them to stop. It feels like incessant worry over things that aren’t that important. It makes me feel out of control, sometimes even dizzy. I find myself avoiding certain situations and people. My muscles ache and my stomach is upset. Headaches come and go. I keep getting sick but the doctor can’t find anything wrong. I can’t sleep, even though I’m exhausted.


Think about someone you know and try and answer the following questions to help you identify the difference between having a bad time and a developing mental illness:

  • What is normal for this person? Has something changed?
  • How long have you noticed these symptoms for?
  • Is this person angry, argumentative or irritable?
  • Do they appear unusually sad?
  • Has their physical appearance changed? Their weight? Their level of grooming?
  • Has this person stopped responding to messages and emails?
  • Has their work performance dropped off?
  • Are they always tired or full of apathy?
  • Does this person talk about difficulties in relationships at home or with friends?
  • Does this person seem distracted or unable to concentrate?
  • Is this person often sick?

If you answered yes to several of these questions, what do you do?


Telling another person, particularly a colleague, about your true feelings invokes vulnerability. Listening non-judgmentally with full attention creates a sense of safety. Active listening involves eye contact, and paraphrasing back to the other person to demonstrate you’ve have heard correctly by saying things such as “So what I’m hearing is that you’ve been having a really hard time lately, is that right?

Remember no one can be wrong about their feelings. Ensure the person you are talking with does not feel judged. Simply listen with full attention and allow the other person to tell you their story. Try and avoid giving in to the need to “fix” or “do” something. People feel better simply by being heard.


Don’t tell someone what to do, rather try to work together and offer your support. Say things like:

“It sounds like you could really do with some support at the moment,” or “Can you tell me what you think might help?”

Offer hope and normalize the persons feelings by saying things like ‘Many people have similar feelings to yours at some point in their life, but most people get better quite quickly especially with the right support.”

Offer practical help, like driving someone to appointments, or cooking dinner for them. Most people who are depressed or anxious feel overwhelmed so removing some simple tasks can ease the burden.

If someone doesn’t want support don’t force it upon them, but do ask what it is that’s stopping them from seeking help. This will assist you in understanding and addressing those barriers. For example, if it’s the cost, let your colleague know that there are many free evidence based online resources. In addition, many workplaces have an Employee Assistance Program.

If someone really doesn’t want help, just let them know that you’re there and you care. Keep gently checking in on them. The process of acknowledging you may be suffering from a mental health condition and then being ready to seek help can be a frustratingly slow one. There are many reasons for this, including the illness itself, which by its nature distorts thinking patterns, the stigma associated with mental illness, and a lack of understanding or awareness of our own emotions.

Look on it as gently chipping away at the barriers the person is facing.

Be prepared

Preparation is key to any conversation you may have.

  • Think of an appropriate place and time that is comfortable for you both and where you won’t be disturbed. Switch your mobile phone off!
  • Be clear about what it is that you have noticed that concerns you.
  • Think about how you word the question. If you ask ‘are you ok?’ 90% of people will respond with “I’m fine”. So try asking an open question such as…“I’ve noticed you seem a bit distracted lately and not your usual self. How are you travelling?” And follow up with “Would you like to grab a coffee or go for a walk one lunch time?”
  • Show genuine caring using your tone of voice and body language.
  • You are trying to create a safe space for the other person to tell you their story. Think about what would help you to feel safe and secure.
Seek Help

Know the different resources that are available. Check out the Mind website (www.mind.org.uk) or even call the help line yourself (0300 123 3393), explaining that there is someone you are concerned about and asking how you may best help them.

Remember that in the process of trying to help your colleague you are building your own awareness and knowledge. You are adding to your own mental health tool kit that might just shift you towards the fully engaged, productive and meaningful end of the health continuum. Your life becomes better through helping someone else.



Tara LalAuthor: Tara Lal is a firefighter, Mental Health First Aid trainer, international speaker on Mental Health and suicide post-vention and prevention, and the author of Standing on My Brother’s Shoulders.

Comments are closed.

© 2019