Psychological first aid in the workplace. What should you do if you notice an employee has mental health problems?

Psychological first aid in the workplace. What should you do if you notice an employee has mental health problems?

| Professional Skills of the Future

Mental health significantly influences an individual's quality of life and work performance. Simultaneously, it also impacts the overall functioning of the business they are part of.

At the same time, approximately 25% of the global population faces psychological problems, with 4% of the total population on Earth experiencing depression. In the UK alone, companies incur an annual loss of 2.5 million due to mental health-related problems. Frequent sick days, time off work, missed deadlines, apathy, and reduced creativity represent only a fraction of the consequences resulting from poor mental health. Imagine what your business would be capable of if all employees were completely happy and did not experience any mental health problems!

Psychological first aid is an approach that can empower both your employees and your business, or at the very least, help mitigate the risks associated with genuinely hazardous and serious problems. After all, we've all heard of CPR. And we know how, for example, to behave if a person has a stroke or an epileptic seizure. However, only a few individuals recognise the importance of having a well-defined action plan when dealing with mental health disorders.

You do not necessarily need to be a certified psychotherapist to provide initial psychological first aid. Having these professionals as part of your staff is beneficial (though typically found only in large or government organisations). Whether a manager or an everyday employee, you can nurture your team's psychological well-being and your own. In our fast-paced modern world, the rising demands and costs underscore the need for these skills. It's increasingly likely that you'll encounter situations where providing this assistance becomes essential. We will tell you exactly when it is needed, the symptoms, and the action plan for when they are detected.

Determining whether a person needs psychological first aid: the symptoms and the causes


As we have already mentioned, psychological first aid is similar to helping in any other critical situation. This means that you also need to identify the prerequisites for providing this assistance, the so-called "alarm bells", and symptoms of mental illness. Most of us are aware of the existence of mental health disorders. Still, few know exactly how they manifest in everyday life. When providing initial psychological first aid, it is not necessary to accurately differentiate between various disorders unless you are a full-time psychologist. However, you want to improve your competencies to care for your business). It will be enough to notice something wrong with your employee in time and not turn a blind eye to it.

To identify whether someone or even yourself, requires psychological first aid, consider the following symptoms:

  • Physical. When a person begins experiencing gastrointestinal or heart issues, frequent headaches, sudden weight changes, weakness, dizziness, neglect of hygiene or appearance, and symptoms like loss of appetite or insomnia. For example, if you notice that your employee has large dark circles under their eyes or does not eat anything during lunch, this is suspicious.

  • Emotional. This includes chronic fatigue, mood swings, sudden changes in behaviour, and actions that deviate from the person's typical patterns. Additionally, signs of psychological distress may include loss of self-confidence, increased anxiety, conflicts, and difficulties with concentration. For instance, consider an employee who has consistently demonstrated well-mannered and calm behaviour suddenly shouting at colleagues due to an accidental chair push.

  • Social. They avoid communication with the team, directly complain about particular factors, develop harmful habits like smoking, refuse to participate in informal events, isolate themselves, and exhibit taciturn behaviour. Pay attention to these signs only if they were not a normal characteristic of the employee before. Otherwise, you might confuse symptoms of psychological problems with natural character traits, such as a high level of introversion.

  • Employees. These are the most noticeable and significant signs that employers typically observe first. This encompasses a broad decline in productivity, which may manifest as unplanned and frequent absences, an uptick in errors, reduced engagement and initiative, missed deadlines, and diminished work quality.

Pay close attention to the duration and regularity of these symptoms. Be cautious only if the symptoms persist for more than a month. Suppose they appear only periodically or for a week or two. In that case, this may be a temporary or forced condition that will be resolved independently. It's also crucial that more than three symptoms are present, and they should come from different categories. If you observe all the signs of declining productivity, it may not necessarily be due to the employee's mental state. It could also result from a waning interest in work or a desire to quit. Allow the employee time, observe their behaviour, and refrain from jumping to conclusions until you are certain.

You should be especially vigilant if your work involves high-stress levels. This applies to:

  • Doctors, teachers, sales managers, and service personnel. In short, this applies to anyone whose job requires frequent communication with others.

  • IT specialists, game designers, game developers, consultants and all those who deal with project work. This applies to individuals who experience overload and are compelled to meet strict deadlines.

  • Media employees, advertising, and event agencies. This applies to individuals whose work primarily revolves around completing tasks quickly and involves a high level of organisational responsibility.

It would be best to be vigilant at certain times, for example, on the eve of holidays, when the team's workload increases, or during a drop in sales and a crisis within the company or in the market. Therefore, it is important to monitor internal and external factors that may increase employees' risk of psychological problems.

Psychological first aid: what you should do


Psychological first aid is always based on the same thing - a confidential and comfortable conversation in a private place and a calm environment. Engaging in dialogue is essentially the most you can do for someone who needs to address mental health issues. You cannot solve those problems on their behalf or compel them to do so. That is why psychological help consists mainly of emotional support and motivation to tackle full treatment.

Experienced mental health professionals use the ALGEE method to achieve this. This is an abbreviation that consists of:

1. Approach, evaluate the risk

Start the conversation by stating your reasons for wanting to discuss your employee's mental health. Be direct but avoid negative criticism like "You've become a bit apathetic lately." Instead, you should say, "You seem less energetic than you used to be." Also, explain why you are interested in this in the first place and prioritise empathy over business-related concerns. Say, for example, that you decided to discuss it because you don't want the employee's problems to worsen, leading to more serious consequences in all areas of their life.

Expressing your point of view exclusively is very important, and you should not speak for the entire team or state it as a request. For example, use the expressions "I noticed" or "I feel that" instead of "You have become withdrawn" and "I was told that you…". You can also attempt to interpret a person's symptoms and verify them yourself if your interpretation is accurate. This approach might prompt the person to correct you, allowing them to explain their feelings.

2. Listen nonjudgmentally

Give the person an opportunity to express themselves. Since you initiated this conversation, demonstrate empathy and genuine interest in the employee's words and situation. To present them, you can use the skill of active listening, that is, for example, asking clarifying questions ("I understood correctly that...") or rhetorical exclamations ("Oh, that's how it is, then"), Engage in active listening behaviours, such as nodding, using rhythmic gestures, and maintaining eye contact.

If an employee abruptly declines to discuss a particular topic, promptly switch to the next point of discussion. Remember that psychological first aid cannot be provided by force; it is very important to maintain a trusting relationship with the employee and not put them in an awkward position. However, providing initial psychological support might become more challenging if you have never had this kind of relationship. The employee may hesitate to confide in someone who has not previously shown interest in them. This is why high-quality communication and cohesion within the team are generally essential.

3. Provide reassurance and information

It is important to express emotional support regardless of what the employee tells you. For instance, discuss your own experience and explain how you encountered a similar situation. You can also share helpful facts and information, expressing hope that the person's condition will improve soon. For example, tell them this is a common problem amongst professionals in your field, which can be solved. Also, reassure them that all information shared between you and the individual is confidential and will not be disclosed elsewhere. Promise to maintain confidentiality regarding anything the person confides in you.

4. Encourage appropriate professional help and promote informal support (such as self-help strategies and other forms of assistance)

Ask them what kind of help they need to deal with the problem (if any at all, in their opinion). If available, offer contact information for a psychotherapist you know or relevant corporate opportunities. It would be helpful to offer them a helpline, psychological forums, and resources or recommend special self-help literature that can assist an individual in managing the condition independently if they adamantly choose not to seek professional help. Additionally, extend an invitation to spend time with your team outside of work, providing informal support to your colleague. Friendly communication, shared outings to cafes, or heart-to-heart conversations during walks can also be valuable forms of assistance anyone can offer.

  • Develop a comprehensive approach to the mental health of your employees that becomes part of the corporate culture. For instance, employees can be provided with access to online consultations with a psychologist if hiring a full-time specialist is not feasible. Alternatively, consider granting employees the option to take an additional day off per month if their psychological well-being necessitates it.

  • Enhance workplace culture and working conditions to create a better office environment. This applies to workplaces, including ensuring that the room is warm and well-lit, employees have comfortable chairs, and they have adequate time for lunch and other needs. Other positive influences on team morale include providing free tea and coffee, allowing employees to wear slippers in the office, and ensuring access to space and time for physical exercise within the workplace (or offering a gym subscription for employees),

  • Regularly conduct anonymous surveys to assess employees' mental well-being. This approach allows you to identify factors that may negatively impact employees' psychological well-being. Doing so lets you promptly implement appropriate measures and offer timely psychological first aid. Questionnaires of this nature could include inquiries such as, "Have you experienced discomfort or anxiety at work in the past week?" or "Do you encounter work-related issues that you have no one to confide in?"

  • Train your employees and managers to provide psychological first aid to each other independently. It is also crucial to foster the growth of emotional intelligence among your employees, raise awareness about the significance of mental health, impart psychological self-help skills, and enhance the team's overall awareness.

Remember that overly harsh or intrusive actions can exacerbate situations despite your best intentions. Given that you are not a professional psychotherapist, it is crucial to approach psychological first aid with delicacy and care. It's also much easier to prevent psychological problems than to solve them, so it always improves employee satisfaction. The pleasure derived from performing work contributes to minimising mental health risks.

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