The descent begins with the signs of disengagement:
- Missing deadlines;
- Not letting go of issues or re-prosecuting decisions that have already been made;
- Deficit language and constantly finding fault;
- Sarcasm, cynicism;
As it progresses, they become quiet, and increasingly invisible:
- Physical separation from others – arriving last to meetings, sitting at the end of the table, never in the middle;
- Using flexible work arrangements to avoid personal contact;
- Over-reliance on email communication;
- Disappearing from the office for extended periods;
- Diary appointments cancelled without explanation.
To workmates, it’s out of character:
- She didn’t used to be like that;
- He’s been grumpy for weeks;
But before long, those same workmates adjust to the behaviour and incorporate it into their work routines:
- Stop inviting him out for lunch;
- Don’t invite her to the meeting;
- Find somebody else to work on the project;
- Look the other way.
And then one day, one of two things happen:
1. An incident occurs, which everybody saw coming but nobody did anything to stop, or
2. She stops coming to work, takes sick leave and quietly disappears.
The signs of deteriorating mental health, most commonly experienced through depression and anxiety, are often there for all of us to see. Left unaddressed, typical patterns of descent occur.
Men and women tend to behave differently, but predictably:
For many men, depression presents itself in the form of anger, irritation, or aggression instead of sadness. Men use alcohol or other substances to cope. Left unaddressed, the issues tend to worsen rather than resolve.
Women are more likely to notice symptoms of atypical depression like sleeping excessively, eating more, gaining weight, and experiencing feelings of guilt.
While men often direct their inner turmoil outward, lashing out verbally or physically, women tend to place the blame on themselves, causing feelings of sadness and worthlessness. Women shrink before our eyes.
Contemporary life is complex. The pressure to succeed, achieve, be perfect or just keep up can be overwhelming. Contrary to what many people believe, the workplace is not usually the cause of our mental health problems, but because of workplace pressures it is often the place where we reach the tipping point. Pressure at work can exacerbate a mental health condition that has its origins elsewhere.
But a supportive workplace is also the place where the turnaround can start. It starts with personal connection.
We spend so much time at work, that we need strategies to look out for each other. If you are worried whether they are OK, ask them?
- When they brush you off the first time, ask them again.
- Let them know what you are seeing and that you are there for them.
- Encourage them to see their GP and discuss what they are experiencing. Seeing a GP is the first step to getting a mental health plan.
- Check in tomorrow, and the day after.
- Be persistent and be present.
- Help stop the descent.
The most powerful thing you can do at work is give somebody your undivided attention.
Put that to best use.
The Black Dog Institute has valuable resources