4 Ways to Help a Discouraged Workmate…

Get employee mental health strategy right, and it guarantees sustained performance. But get it wrong, and a crisis could be ahead.

The subject of mental health fills many managers and employees with apprehension. In fact, many believe the best strategy is to ignore the issue altogether. A problem ignored, rarely disappears however – it usually grows. Like it or not, depression and anxiety disorders account for 34% of all lost productivity through absenteeism and presenteeism according to a Medibank study. A Wesley Mission survey showed that 85% of Australians know someone close to them with depression or an anxiety disorder, yet many people believe only GP’s, psychologists, and psychiatrists can help.

Organisations that know how to proactively address these issues will benefit from greater engagement and productivity.

In contrast to mental fatigue,  research published by Harvard Business Review in an article by Shawn Achor shows that employees with a positive mood are 31% more productive, sell 37% more, and are 300% more productive. The best strategy is to have practices in place that enhance mental health in the first place, but what do you do for those people that are already discouraged?

My research of 4060 people who live with depression or bipolar shows that almost everyone can make a positive contribution towards improving the mental health of a person who appears to be struggling. Participants were asked to rate how important 60 different strategies were to their recovery. The desire wasn’t to find a definitive one strategy to help but to look at themes that occurred. It emerged that there are 4 ways that all managers and colleagues can make a positive difference to someone who is discouraged. It is to CARE.

  • Compassion
  • Access experts
  • Revitalizing work
  • Exercise

Compassion or emotional support was judged the most important component of recovery by respondents. Emotional support can come from friends and loved ones, support groups, medical professionals, and work colleagues. Emotional support contributed 4 out the top 10 strategies rated (of a possible 60 options). Employees say that when a supervisor or someone at work cares about them as a person, it is the biggest predictor of recovery and return to productivity. One of the best ways to achieve this is through learning how to ask “Are you OK?”. As a Director of R U OK? Day, we recommend a 4 step approach to building trust and helping someone you are concerned about:

  1. Breaking the ice
  2. Listening without judgement
  3. Encouraging Action
  4. Follow up

For further information and guidance please refer to the free resources at www.ruokday.com.au

Many managers are paralysed by the fear of saying the wrong thing, and opt for saying nothing. I guarantee that if you approach the conversation with a genuine effort to “put yourself in their shoes” your intent will be felt and appreciated.

Do your employees regularly ask RUOK? to discouraged workmates?

Are RUOK?Day resources readily available?

Access Experts

Despite depression accounting for 26% of all GP visits, most medical students receive around 6 hours of lectures about depression and anxiety disorders. Is it any wonder that many are ill equipped to properly diagnosis conditions and provide evidence based treatment plans. Finding a mental health savvy GP is a key foundation for getting the right support. So how do you help a colleague find them:

  • Ask friends if they know some who deals in this area.
  • At www.beyondblue.org.au you can enter your postcode and find local GP’s and psychologists that specialize in mental health.
  • Ask you EAP partner to provide a panel
  • Consult your community mental health group.

The biggest regret of those with depression and their carers was that they didn’t get an accurate diagnosis earlier. There is now a software assessment tool called the Mood Assessment Program developed by the Black Dog Institute that helps GP’s make a more accurate diagnosis than would normally be possible in a surgery setting with time constraints.

Finding a mental health savvy GP video provides further insights and detail.

The psychological interventions that my survey respondents found most helpful for mood disorders were:

Does your workplace have a panel of qualified GP’s and psychologists they can refer employees to?

Revitalizing work

In a result that will surprise many, fulfilling work was rated number 6 (out of 60 options) in strategies that assist with recovery. To place this in context, it rated above cognitive behaviour therapy and any medication. It is clearly seen as an important component of recovery and wellbeing. Through my own work in recruitment, outplacement, and career planning I know from experience that a large percentage of employees aren’t in the right role and this will often have a detrimental impact on their mental health. Similarly, a toxic immediate work environment with harassment or bullying can be detrimental to mental health.

It seems that the greatest fulfilment from work comes when employees know and use their strengths. The Gallup organisation has long pioneered research into work strengths and the first step they recommend is for employees to understand their top 5 strengths out of a possible 34.

Do your leaders seek to understand employee’s strengths and build them?

Has bullying and harassment been eliminated?


Vigorous and moderate exercise both rated in the top 10 (out of 60 options). There is mounting clinical evidence that exercise contributes to recovery. One of the common symptoms of depression is fatigue and an overactive mind and underactive body. How do you break that inertia? In my experience these tips help:

  • Find something you enjoy doing – think back to your childhood.
  • Walk with a friend – this can serve 2 purposes – emotional support and exercise.
  • Start with whisker goals –small, no-stress goals – if you are severely depressed just try to get to the letterbox each day for the first week. Then build to 15 minutes each day for the next week, and build by 10% for the next week, until you are doing 30-45 minutes per day.
  • Introduce rituals – e.g. get a pedometer to measure your steps each day, lay your exercise clothes out before you go to bed etc.

Is physical wellbeing encouraged?

Do you have regular walking meetings?

Graeme Cowan is a resilience and mental health speaker, author, and consultant, who is passionate about helping workplaces create thriving tribes, that enhance performance and wellbeing. www.GraemeCowan.com.au

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