Establishing a mental well-being baseline

In this book I am advocating that managers take a far more proactive stance about mental well-being in their workplaces. As a manager, you can do this by promoting mental well-being in your realm of influence. An easy way to begin this is by becoming more attuned to the mental well-being of the people you work with.

Spend a bit of time thinking about your colleagues and their personalities. What is each person like on an average day? How do they respond when they are under stress? How sociable are they? Which are the team members who are punctual and conscientious, and who will more often than not arrive late for meetings? Which members of staff always leave the workplace promptly at the end of the day and who tends to work late and even take work home? Who habitually dresses smartly and who is more casual in their attire?

Most good managers will know all of the above, but the information is usually stored in our minds in a vague and unfocused way. Take some time to reflect on this knowledge and make it as conscious as you can. To be able to spot abnormal’ changes in people, you need to know what their normal’ looks like.

I used to sit near someone at the West Bromwich Albion football ground who was fondly known as ‘Meldrew’ because of his habit of constantly complaining about almost everything. I knew him for years and he didn’t change much. I am sure he was just as morose in his home and work life.

Imagine for a moment that you are a new manager who doesn’t know what Meldrew is like. You might easily see an emerging depression. But for Meldrew, his normal is equivalent to most people’s miserable.

Some people have a low baseline, like Meldrew. Other people might be the opposite and have a baseline of unrelenting positivity and enthusiasm. However, most people are pretty average in their emotional baseline - not too up or down.

To be able to spot the early warning signs of poor mental health you need to be alert for any significant deviation from the individual’s normal baseline functioning.

Spotting the early warning signs: things to look out for

Quality of work

Has the quality of the person’s work declined recently?

Time taken to do the work

Is it taking the person longer than expected to complete work tasks? In depression, one of the first symptoms that becomes apparent is difficulty in concentration and memory. People who are becoming anxious will start to worry whether their work is good enough and start repeatedly checking what they do, which slows things down.

Working hours - arriving late or working long hours

Is a person who is usually punctual frequently arriving late? They may be sleeping poorly, which is a symptom of both depression and anxiety. Is somebody working unusually long hours? They may be finding it hard to focus and so have to do extra hours just to keep up with their work.

Workplace relationships

You need to act if the person’s distress starts spilling out and affecting other people in the team. Are colleagues of the person approaching you to express concern for their welfare? Conversely, are colleagues complaining because they feel the person isn’t pulling their weight?

Is someone in the team being particularly irritable, snappy or belligerent? Conversely, is a normally confident person behaving in a clingy or dependent manner? Do they seem in constant need of support and encouragement? Both irritability and clinginess can be signs of an emerging depression or anxiety disorder.

Appearance and manner (clean and tidy or disheveled)

Does the person turn up at work looking untidy, with poor personal hygiene, or dressed inappropriately? This might be a sign of self-neglect, which often happens with a mood disorder.

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