Tackling mental health in the workplace

I met Arianne in Malta at Vassallo Group’s seminar “Wellbeing @ Work”, during which she delivered a presentation to raise awareness about mental health and wellbeing.
It is important for both employers and employees to know that mental health difficulties are common.
What effects can mental health issues have on people and organisations?
How can we recognise that a colleague may need help?
I have asked Arianne to share some information on the topic of mental health in the workplace.

Muriel: “How can we define mental health?”

Arianne: “According to the World Health Organisation, “Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community” (WHO, 2014). Mental health can also be seen as a continuum, ranging from having good mental health to having mental illness. A person may move along this continuum at different points in their life.

Our mental health is as important as our physical health. We cannot take care of our physical health and neglect our mental health because the two work hand in hand. They cannot be separated because we, as human beings, are one whole system and strive to achieve good health in all aspects in order to function well.”

Muriel: “Who is prone to a mental health issue?”

Arianne: “Anyone may be prone to developing a mental health problem. We may all experience stressful events and difficult situations at some point in our life. While stress is not a mental health issue in itself, it is one of the main factors that could lead to a mental health problem or mental illness. Nobody is immune or protected from developing a mental health problem. However, there are risk factors which make some people more prone to developing a mental illness than others. Some of the main risk factors include:

  • Family history (having family members who have experienced a mental illness)
  • Gender (being either male or female could make one more at risk to developing particular mental health difficulties)
  • Childhood experiences (such as abuse, neglect and bullying)
  • Adverse life events
  • Separation or divorce
  • The lack of a close, confiding relationship."

Muriel: “What is the difference between a mental health problem and mental illness?”

Arianne: “A mental illness or mental disorder is a diagnosable illness which affects a person’s thinking, emotional state and behaviour. It also disrupts the person’s ability to work, carry out daily activities, and engage in satisfying relationships. Mental illnesses cause disability which can sometimes be severe.

A mental health problem is a broader term which includes symptoms of mental illnesses that may not be severe enough to warrant the diagnosis of a mental illness.”

Muriel: “We often confuse anxiety with depression; what are the symptoms which differentiate them?”

Arianne: “Yes, many people tend to confuse the two, however, anxiety and depression are two different illnesses. Depression is a type of mood disorder which affects emotions, thinking, behaviour, physical wellbeing and the ability to study, work and have satisfying relationships. The medical term for depression is ‘major depressive disorder’ and the symptoms need to be present for a minimum of two weeks in order for the person to be diagnosed with depression. The main symptoms of depression are:

  • An unusually sad mood that does not go away
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities
  • Lack of energy and tiredness
  • Feeling worthless or guilty when not really at fault
  • Thinking about death a lot or wishing they were dead
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Moving slowly or, sometimes, becoming agitated and unable to settle
  • Having sleeping difficulties or, sometimes, sleeping too much
  • Loss of interest in food, or, sometimes, eating too much.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is a different type of disorder and is an umbrella term for several types of anxiety-related disorders such as generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety and phobias to name a few. Some of the main symptoms that are experienced by someone who is diagnosed with an anxiety disorder are excessive, ongoing worry and tension; an unrealistic view of problems; restlessness or a feeling of being "edgy"; irritability, difficulty concentrating; muscle tension; headaches and tiredness.”

Muriel: “What effects can mental health issues have on people and organisations?”

Arianne: “Mental health issues can have several effects on the individual’s personal life as well as at their workplace. The individual might feel tired all the time, experience physical problems and may find it hard to deal with day-to-day functioning. At work, the symptoms can affect performance due to problems with concentration, memory, decision-making and motivation. These problems could lead to a rise in absenteeism or presenteeism and decreased productivity which will in turn lead to increased costs for the organisation. As an employer, it pays to help an employee going through mental health difficulties. This is because most people with mental health problems who receive treatment respond with improved work performance and they recover. Investing time and support to retain an experienced and skilled employee with mental health difficulties is usually more cost-effective than recruiting and training a new person.”

Muriel: “How can we recognise that a colleague may need help?”

Arianne: “If a colleague is going through a difficult time, we might notice a change in their behaviour. Changes in behaviour and changes in the person’s usual way of being are significant signs that there might be a problem. You might notice the following signs in your colleague:

  • Looking sick and run down
  • Complaining of headaches
  • Looking tired
  • A dishevelled appearance
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Poor timekeeping
  • Increased absence
  • Poor performance or over performance
  • Rapid mood changes
  • Irritability
  • Forgetfulness

Most employees may exhibit such behaviour from time to time. However, if someone’s behaviour changes markedly and becomes a persistent problem, this could indicate something more serious. We might also notice some of the above signs and symptoms in ourselves, so it is important to speak up about how we are feeling too and to seek professional help as soon as possible. Early intervention is very important as it aims to prevent problems from becoming more serious. In fact, the longer people delay getting support, the more difficult their recovery can be.”

Muriel: “What can we do to help a colleague who is going through a mental health difficulty?”

Arianne: “If we notice that a colleague is struggling and is not their usual self, we can help them by speaking to them, listening to what they have to say and offering them our support. You can start off by making a plan of what you would like to say to your colleague and plan your approach well, including planning an appropriate time and place to speak to the person. Empathy and listening in a non-judgemental manner are two very important tools to make use of when trying to support someone. It is important to be clear about concerning behaviours that you have noticed in the person. You can also find out what resources are available in your workplace to support people with mental health problems, for example, an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) or you can encourage the person to speak to their GP (or family doctor) who can then refer them to other professionals if necessary.

Supporting colleagues that are showing the early signs and symptoms of a mental health problem is important, as it can assist the person to return to their usual performance quickly.”

Muriel: “How can organisations deal with mental health and care for their people’s wellbeing?”

Arianne: “Creating reasonable adjustments or accommodations for employees experiencing mental health problems is a good starting point for organisations to provide support to their employees. Understanding the limitations of the person and making small adjustments related to the employee’s tasks or role could make a very big difference to the employee’s wellbeing. Setting up a peer/buddy system could also be very supportive.

Another important way in which organisations can deal with mental health problems as well as care for their employees’ wellbeing is by introducing an EAP (Employee Assistance Programme) which is an easy way for employees to access professional support in a confidential manner. Having an EAP in place gives the message that the organization has the employees' wellbeing at heart.

Another way in which organizations can really support employees is to provide awareness training and education on the subject.  Courses in Mental Health First Aid would equip employees with the right tools to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of a mental health problem and to support their colleagues in the best way possible. This course teaches how to recognize symptoms of different illnesses and mental health crises, how to offer initial help and how to guide a person towards appropriate treatments and other supports.”


Arianne Spiteri Cremona, B.Psy (Hons) graduated in psychology in 2014 and started working in the Employment, Training and Organisation Support Unit at Richmond Foundation in August 2014. In her role as Deputy Manager, she has trained people with mental health difficulties in life and job skills and supported them in finding employment.
Ms Spiteri Cremona regularly delivers training to various companies and organizations on stress management and subjects related to mental wellbeing and is also a Mental Health First Aid Instructor. She also provides consultancy and mentoring to job coaches in the disability sector.
Ms Spiteri Cremona is currently reading for a Masters in Gestalt Psychotherapy and has a particular interest in the effects of mental health difficulties on one’s life and at the workplace, Resilience, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Trauma.
She is also a MyBrain Practitioner https://mybrain.co.uk/

© Muriel Matta 2019

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Muriel Matta (BSc, MSc, MPhil, Cert CTT Practitioner) is an HR Advisor, Coach, Trainer and Facilitator.
She is a multilingual Human Resources Management expert, with extensive cross-cultural experience in MENA, Europe and CIS. 
In line with her Vision, she launched Maravilhosa in 2014 to help organizations build high-performing teams.
For more information:
Muriel can be contacted via email: Muriel@maravilhosa.net

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