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It’s not that hard to spot a team member who needs some help if you know what to look for.

By: Bill Zolis

We’ve talked a good deal about mental wellness in the workplace, but one of the hardest parts of trying to provide solutions has always been a sense of vagueness and uncertainty: What are the issues? Who is affected? How can you tell the difference between the normal ups and downs of life and an emerging mental wellness crisis? Is there a problem here? Does someone need help, or will they work it out by themselves? Should I be doing something? 

These are issues we’ve been dealing with for some time, but they were really brought home to me by a terrific presentation called Mental Health in the Remote Workplace put on by a lady named Lisa-Laurel Lazoren as part of the Bell Let’s Talk mental wellness campaign. 

One of the things I found most interesting in the presentation was the fact that she was very specific in describing a person’s journey from “well” to “not well.” So often, when we talk about mental wellness, there is a sense of uncertainty and a feeling that we can’t ever quite put a finger on exactly what’s happening. 

Lisa-Laurel described three stages that a person goes through when things are going off the rails: what I look like when I am well; what I look like when I’m breaking down; and what I look like when I’m in crisis. I think this is extremely useful, and I’d like to summarize those points here. 

What I look like when I’m well 

Attitude and behaviour: happy, outgoing, full of energy, good balance between work and life 

Mental state: organized, methodical and easy going 

Communication: eloquent, mindful and thought-out 

Eating and sleeping: eating well and sleeping well 

Self talk: positive and self-affirming 

What I look like when I am breaking down 

Attitude and behaviour: irritable, impatient, opinionated, easily frustrated 

Mental state: mind is constantly spinning and focused on the next thing, difficulty focusing on the task, tends to jump around, easily distracted 

Communication: very direct and often poignant or emotional 

Eating and sleeping: binge eating, too much sugar and caffeine, poor sleep or 3 or 4 hours a night in short intervals 

Self talk: a constant sense of urgency and crisis 

What I look like when I am in crisis 

Attitude and behaviour: sad, withdrawn, disappointed in self, afraid others will see, a feeling of falling apart, low energy, often feeling like crying, working excessive overtime, possible suicidal ideation 

Mental state: exhausted, catastrophizing, conflicted between needing help and being determined to work through it 

Communication: avoid at all cost, avoid eye contact, constant apologizing 

Eating and sleeping: no desire to eat, excessive time in bed, but cannot sleep due to constant anxious thoughts 

Self talk: negative thoughts, a feeling of “you can’t do this” and “you’re in over your head” but that everyone else “has it together” 

In her presentation, Lisa-Laurel went on to describe case studies of employees going through these stages but, to be perfectly frank, I don’t think many of us needed to hear about specific cases. That’s because we can all quickly identify with the three stages from our own experience. We’ve all seen it happen – it may have happened to us – although we may never have connected the dots in quite this way before. 

In other words, I know I’ve seen the pattern of developing mental wellness crisis before in my working life – I just never really knew it was a “thing” before. We’ve all seen it, we’ve all heard about if before. But it tended to be seen in terms of “So-and-so is just not doing well and we don’t know what the problem is.” 

I think back over my own experience – especially way back to when we didn’t talk about stuff like this, and certainly not in terms of mental wellness – and ask myself, What happened to those people? 

In some cases, they worked it out for themselves, perhaps with the help of family and other resources. 

In some cases, the boss took them aside and had a long talk – it’s surprising how often this had very positive results. Looking back at those “long talks” – I’ve given a few myself – I think the key elements in today’s terms were just validating a concern, reaching out, putting things back in perspective, providing support, and that all-important reassurance that “you’re not alone.” 

In some cases, though, it didn’t work out well. In what Lisa-Laurel so vividly described as the third stage – crisis – we would see the declining performance, and the increasing isolation. Then sick days and sick leave, and attempts at return to work that were sometimes successful and sometimes not.  

I think we all agree that it doesn’t have to be that way.  

But how does a person – it could be an employee or a co-worker, it could be you or me – go from that first state Lisa-Laurel described, to the second, and then the third? And what should we do to help when we see those changes starting to take shape? 

I’m going to assume that readers of the blog have a lot of the bases covered. We’ve talked about this before, and what I hear from clients and others is that we have come a long way in managing for wellness, in providing resources, and in supporting our people. The days when “suck it up” was the accepted solution are well behind us. 

But for me, and I think for a lot of people who have been to one of her presentations, Lisa-Laurel provided an invaluable piece of the puzzle that we may have been missing before: how to spot a person who is starting to struggle in the workplace, recognizing that this pattern is a “thing,” and being reasonably sure that we can and we should reach out – now. 

In other words, we should probably that friendly, concerned “long talk” way sooner. 

*** 

I really appreciate comments, ideas, suggestions or just observations about the blog or any other topics in benefits management. I always look forward to hearing from readers. If there’s anything you want to share, please email me at bill@penmore.com 

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