Serious mental breakdowns at work – can you spot the signs?

Human Resources 24th January 2019

Did you see the ‘digger’ video doing the social media rounds just the other day?

This viral video featured a disgruntled labourer who took it upon himself to drive his digger to the forecourt of a Liverpool Travelodge, up the steps, through the front door and into the foyer where it smashed up the entire reception area, before turning tail and re-emerging onto the street outside.  Colleagues made numerous brave attempts to talk to the driver and to coax him out.  Finally, they managed to disable the digger, and he leapt down from the cab, hot-footing his way from the scene.

The reason for this apparent act of vandalism?  He was allegedly owed £600 of wages for renovation work on the hotel.

A Robin Hood figure

The online responses were mixed.  The majority found it hilarious.  Some were scornful.  Others were supportive, seeing the perpetrator as a Robin Hood figure, putting two fingers up to the corporate fat-cats.  Surprisingly few entertained the possibility that the fellow might have been suffering from depression or other mental illness.  How common is it in the workplace to judge the erratic or disturbing behaviour of a team member, without being fully aware of the facts?

Without knowing the exact facts, we shouldn’t rush to judge the man with the digger.  For example, we don’t know if he’d picked the right target for his act of revenge.  Was the money allegedly owed by the hotel chain itself or from a contractor?  Neither do we know about the man’s background.  Was he under personal or financial pressure or both?  What was his mental state?

Imagine we knew how to spot the signs of mental disturbance.  Wouldn’t it be a tremendous asset to our company and a service to our colleagues?  Wouldn’t we be much better placed to take restorative action for the benefit of all?  Not only would we be able to offer support our team members, but we could potentially have a tremendously positive impact.  Knowing when to take disciplinary action and when to offer support is a great gift to have.

‘Are you OK?’

Everyone with mental health issues will have different experiences and may manifest their difficulties differently.  Symptoms will vary from person to person.  However, there are a few common signs.  It’s important to remember that just because a colleague is displaying one or more of these signs, it doesn’t always mean they’re suffering from a mental health issue.  Their behaviour could be caused by any number of reasons.  Whatever the situation, if you think a colleague is behaving in an unusual manner, it’s always worth quietly asking, ‘Are you OK?’

Here are just a few of the signs to look out for –

Physical symptoms, such as panic attacks

These can be terrifying experiences.  A number of physical symptoms might all occur simultaneously.  Your colleague might begin to perspire and shake.  They might have difficulty breathing or suffer a choking sensation.  They could feel as though their heart is racing or feel chest pains.  This could make them worry that they’re suffering from a heart attack, or that they’re about to die.  Panic attacks like these can be the result of mental health issues.  With professional help and/or medication, the problems can be eased.

Psychological Signs

These can be harder to pick out.  You sometimes need really sensitive antennae to spot them.

Confused or distracted behaviour

This could be just part of their personality, but, if this type of behaviour is abnormal and is paired with one of the other signs identified here, then there may well be a mental health problem.

Lapses of memory can be relatively easy to identify as a symptom of potential mental ill health.  It can lead to disorientation or confusion.  Forgetfulness can have a variety of causes, including excessive stress or trauma.

Tearfulness can be a symptom of personal difficulties, stress or poor mental health.  Whatever the cause, a quiet word, along with support from colleagues is an essential first step.

Behavioural signs

It’s easy to misinterpret these as poor manners or work ethic.  They can result in unfair and unwarranted disciplinary proceedings.  If you spot these signs amongst your team, especially if they are uncharacteristic, try a gentle word, offering help.  Typical behaviour styles include –

Aggression or anger
Sudden displays of anger or irritability in a colleague can be a sign of anxiety or other problems, particularly if the behaviour is out of character.

Excessive risk-taking
Has an employee started to take uncharacteristic risks?  Do they seem to be acting impulsively in their decision making?  These could be signs of schizophrenia or a bipolar disorder.  You should do all you can to signpost your colleague to a professional for help.

Increased absence
It might be tempting to respond to this behaviour with immediate disciplinary action.  But it’s always wise first to investigate and find out whether the employee is suffering from any personal issues.  Your first step should always be to offer support and help if appropriate.

Goodbye to macho-management

Remember – the days of macho management are long gone – thank goodness!  By being supportive of colleagues or employees who show signs of mental distress, you will not only be making a real positive difference to someone’s life.  You will also be investing in their good will and respect, as well as that of your other employees.

At Gravitas HR, we’re experts in Employee Engagement and Retention.  Find out more and get in touch.  Remember – we’re here to help.

For straight-talking HR advice – 01604 763494
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