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Employee wellbeing: how to look after your staff

As a small business owner, you may be in charge of up to 20 employees. Being responsible for the financial and workplace wellbeing of several people can be stressful. Understanding the signs of mental health concerns and how to talk about them in the workplace will help you better support the mental wellbeing of your staff.

When should I be worried about an employee?

Mental health issues can present differently for different people, and can also change from day to day depending how the person is feeling and what kind of support they have. The important thing to look for is a change in behaviour. Here are some signs to look out for in your staff:

  • Quiet and withdrawn
  • Loss of interest and enthusiasm
  • Is late for shifts or stops showing up
  • Has stopped making an effort with personal hygiene/appearance
  • Not focused and making mistakes
  • Unmotivated and tired often
  • Getting easily upset or frustrated
  • Signs of excessive alcohol or drug use

While some of the behaviours listed above may create initial reactions of ‘lazy’ and ‘bad worker’, they may actually indicate mental health concerns. If you notice an employee showing these out-of-character behaviours for an extended period of time, it is a good idea to check-in.

What should I do if I am worried about an employee?

Talking to someone about their mental health can be nerve-racking, but you need to remember you are there to offer support, not fix all their problems. Below are some tips on how to talk to an employee about their mental health.

  • Research the basics of mental illness: Being aware of the symptoms will help you understand how your employee may be feeling and may give you more confidence when talking about this topic. Read the article ‘Understanding mental health concerns’ to get you started.
  • Find the right time to talk: Leave plenty of time to chat, you do not want to be in a situation where you have to cut the conversation short. Also, make sure you find a quiet and private place to have the talk.
  • Talk openly and honestly: Approach the conversation in a caring manner, even if raising the subject might make you feel uncomfortable at first.
  • Focus on what you have noticed: Talk about behaviours you noticed that you are concerned about, such as being quiet and socially withdrawn when other staff members are chatting or not presenting themselves to the standard they used to.
  • Let them know you are trying to help: Mention that you care about them and are concerned; they are not in trouble for their performance. Remind them that the conversation is confidential and will only be used to help and support them.
  • Listen to what they are saying: They may not feel comfortable telling you everything. Do not push for more information; just focus on what they are telling you. They may open up more as the conversation progresses.
  • Ask if there is anything you can do to help: As their manager, you may be able to provide some leave, change something in the workplace, or offer flexible working arrangements. Try your best to support their needs.
  • Find support services you can recommend: Australia-wide services include Lifeline (13 11 14), Beyond Blue (1300 224 636), SANE Australia (1800 187 623), and the Suicide Call Back Service (1300 659 467). You can always suggest that they speak to their GP as well. Not being a mental health professional, the best thing you can do is encourage them to seek help.
  • Follow up the conversation: In a week’s time, ask them how they are feeling and if anything has changed.
  • Look after yourself: To provide mental health support, you should ensure you are also mentally healthy. Practice self-care to ensure you are ready to support the mental health and wellbeing of employees. Conversations like this can be stressful. Without breaking confidentiality, find someone you can talk to, too. Find out how here.

What are my responsibilities as an employer?

While you are under no legal obligation to speak to your employees if you are concerned about their mental health and wellbeing, you do have other responsibilities in the workplace. Find out more on the Safe Work Australia small business website.

You can also have a look at the resource 'Creating a mentally healthy small business' for more information on how to reduce the psychological risk factors in your workplace.

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