Apr 7, 2021
Mental Health

Are Your Employees or Co-workers Struggling?

Sana Iftikhar, Behavioral Psychologist
What You'll Learn
People are really struggling!What are the signs? What's the impact at work?What can we do about it?

May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. Discover the top 7 factors affecting employee mental health and find out what employers or co-workers can do about it.

People are really struggling!

Over the last year, since the onset of COVID, growing attention has been drawn to mental health. In 2019, studies reported 40 million adults in the US suffer from anxiety disorders each year ( Additionally, a 2019 CDC report showed 18.5% of adults had symptoms of depression, with symptoms highest among 18–29 year olds (

“During June 24–30, 2020, U.S. adults reported considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with COVID-19. Younger adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers, and unpaid adult caregivers reported having experienced disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use, and elevated suicidal ideation” (

Almost in irony, the CDC reported in Sept. 2020 that among adults ages 18–44 with a diagnosed mental illness, only 18.5% received treatment, and only 20% of those 45 and older did (

That’s a lot of untreated mental illness.

What are the signs?

Common symptoms of depression include “feelings of sadness, emptiness, or irritability, accompanied by bodily and cognitive changes lasting at least 2 weeks that significantly affect the individual’s capacity to function” (  

Common symptoms of anxiety disorder include “intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations. Often, anxiety disorders involve repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes (panic attacks). These feelings of anxiety and panic interfere with daily activities, are difficult to control, are out of proportion to the actual danger and can last a long time” (

It can be hard to recognize whether employees are struggling with anxiety.

How do you know if someone in your workplace might be experiencing mental health challenges? Broadly stated, if someone starts exhibiting behavior that is out of character, something more may be going on than a general performance issue. Watch for some of the following signs that may indicate your employee or co-worker may be struggling with a mental illness.

  1. Changes in work habits, such as lower motivation, unusual productivity, difficulty concentrating.
  2. Changes in physical appearance, such as sloppier dress than usual, skimpier clothing, or violations of company dress code.
  3. Changes in demeanor, such as excessive nervousness, irritability, anxiety or acting withdrawn, avoidant, or passive.
  4. Increased absenteeism or tardiness, such as showing up late when normally punctual, frequently calling in sick with complaints of physical aches/heaviness, not showing up at all or not calling in.
  5. Outbursts and mood swings, such as inability to deal with simple things, unusual outbursts, or overly aggressive behavior.

Maybe you’ve been noticing some of these behaviors in your employees, or maybe even you haven’t felt like yourself in a while. As an employer, team leader, or co-worker, it may be useful to know the potential impact to work productivity from untreated mental health issues - even more helpful, some ideas of what you can do to help boost or preserve employee wellbeing.

What's the impact at work?

Are you noticing performance issues, an increase of employee turnover, or perhaps an increase of employees who simply "no call/no show" when they're expected at work?

Engaged HR is an international human resources consulting firm with a focus on employee health and wellbeing. They recognize that many profit and performance factors are tied to mental health. This tweet is one example.

After scouring dozens of scholarly articles, we compiled a list of the top 7 reasons for employee turnover - around the world. You might be surprised to see how many could actually be tied to mental health challenges at the base.

  1. Stress
  2. Relationship problems with superiors
  3. Work-family conflict/imbalance
  4. Relationship problems with colleagues
  5. Performance pressure
  6. Lack of recognition or promotion opportunities
  7. Bureaucratic constraints

What does it mean for your bottom line? A lot.

Global data suggest mental health problems cause a number of employees dropping out of work, with "62% of missed work days being due to a mental health condition" ( Employers and businesses feel the effects of mental health-related issues “through increased absenteeism, negative impact on productivity and profits, as well as an increase in costs to deal with the issue. In addition, they impact employee morale adversely” ( In addition to the direct impact on an employee's state of mind, mental health conditions also impact physical health (e.g. heart disease, sleep apnea, diabetes, and other co-morbidities).

A recent Forbes Magazine article reported, "According to a 2018 study by the American Heart Association, companies lose $17,241 per year in incremental healthcare and productivity costs for each person with major depressive disorder. Unum’s 2019 mental health report demonstrates that mental health issues can have a significant impact on job performance, mainly through lack of focus, irritability, lower productivity, missed work, tension with co-workers and slower career advancement."

What can we do about it?

Why don't employees seek help or talk about their struggles? The 2019 Unum report revealed that employees don’t divulge their mental health condition, because they're  ashamed, concerned about discrimination, or are afraid it will impact their ability to get a desired promotion. Knowing this can help you approach employees with compassion, making it clear that your focus is on their wellbeing.

Employee mental health programs can save companies significant amounts of money, not to mention more difficult-to-measure benefits such as improved morale. Elements of workplace mental health programs may vary, but here are a few suggestions any employer can implement:

Mental health mentors can hold support groups in the workplace.

  • Ensure employees have opportunities for regular one-on-ones with their managers to talk about any problems they’re having
  • Arrange for mental health awareness training
  • Praise employees and recognize their character rather just than their output or productivity
  • Post guides on how to cope with stress or anxiety in the workplace
  • Have mental health ‘mentors’ staff can talk to before issues become severe
  • Offer yoga or breathing practices on-site or via zoom specific days of the week
  • Connect employees to free support resources, such as NAMI ( and SAMHSA (, both of which have free support groups & meetings.
  • Offer a counseling benefit or EAP; Hope Recovery and Healing partners with employers to offer education, support groups, and individual and group therapy (including intensive outpatient treatment) at a discounted rate.

As an employer and a member of the community, your personal awareness and understanding of mental health issues make a difference. In addition, employees who disclose their mental health condition have a legal right to work accommodations. The Job Accommodation Network has a website with explanations and ideas for accommodations for a broad range of disabilities, including mental health conditions.

As an employee, you can ask your employer for EAP programs, or suggest that any of the above become a part of your standard workplace culture. You can make a difference, even if it's just in your own cubicle.

Job Accommodation Network offers several specific actions you can take to accommodate employee needs.
Job Accommodation Network offer specific ideas and resources based on limitations or needs employees might have.

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Sana Iftikhar

Sana holds a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree with a concentration in Health Psychology, which examines how biological, social, and psychological factors influence health and illness.

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