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Understanding the spectrum of mental health support needs at work

The last two years have taken their toll on almost all of us. From the isolation of Covid-19 lockdowns to the current cost of living crisis and war in Ukraine, everyone’s mental wellbeing will have been affected to some degree. As a result, employees will have a spectrum of different mental wellbeing needs. 

Being able to differentiate between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the effects of cumulative stress, and short-term anxiety or discomfort will help employers support individuals and create a workplace that is psychologically safe as well as resilient towards future shocks.

How HR can help languishing employees:

Cost of living learning hub

How to cope with a loss of control

The importance of providing mental health support for staff

The majority of employees will have experienced some discomfort in the last two years, and in most cases this will have been temporary.

Months of being unable to meet with friends, join in social activities or catch up with family were destabilising, but not debilitating in the long term.

For others, the cumulative stresses on their personal and professional lives have had a more significant impact.

Ongoing joylessness or feeling like we don’t belong – languishing as the organisational psychologist Adam Grant describes it – can lead to anxiety and depression, especially among employees who have a history of mental ill health.

Some employee groups may be particularly vulnerable.

For example, younger workers have experienced significant disruption to their employment during Covid-19, and to their finances during the cost of living crisis.

Research from the NHS in 2021 found that 53% of 17 to 23-year-olds said their mental health had deteriorated, and 57% said they had trouble sleeping.

Employers can help people who are languishing using tools such as EAPs, and resilience training.

Creating a workplace culture where employees are confident that they can speak up when they are struggling will help people who are at risk of developing depression or other mental health issues receive the support that they need when they need it.

However, there will also be individuals who faced deep trauma during Covid-19 and have developed PTSD as a result. Domestic abuse rates soared in lockdown, and people who were in intensive care or had a family member admitted to hospital showed high rates of PTSD.

Now, companies with a global workforce may have colleagues who are on the frontline in the war in Ukraine, or employees with relatives experiencing unimagined hardships, who are at risk of developing PTSD.

Being able to detect and act on the symptoms of PTSD in a timely way is an important part of mental health awareness. Three actions for all employers are:

  • Make sure that employee assistance programmes (EAPs) are able to screen effectively for PTSD and can provide suitable referrals to clinical psychologists or psychiatrists.
  • Train mental health first aiders, line managers and others involved with workplace wellbeing to spot signs of PTSD so that employees receive the professional help they need.

  • Build an environment of psychological safety, and a sense of belonging where employees can ask for and receive support, as well as help others either in the workforce or in the wider community. Helping other people is an important antidote to stress of all levels of severity and having a trusted support network can mitigate some of its effects.

Wolfgang Seidl is a doctor of medicine and partner at Mercer, leading the Workplace Health Consulting for UK and Europe