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World Mental Health Day: Common warning signs to look out for in colleagues

Written by: The Lawyer
Published on: 9 Oct 2016

Lawyers article

We all have mental health just as we have physical health, but it can seem more difficult to spot the signs of mental ill health. Former City law firm partner Richard Martin, who following serious mental health illness changed career to advise workplaces on mental wellbeing, tells his story.

The theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day is ‘psychological and mental health first aid for all’. If all workplaces provided Mental Health First Aid, it would create safer, healthier and more productive environments for everyone.

In 2011, I was someone who thought mental ill health ‘doesn’t happen to someone like me’. I sat on my firm’s management committee, headed up the employment team, and had an active personal life. I was the last person anyone would have predicted would have mental health problems.

It was on my way home from a family holiday in France when I felt severely unwell and was checked for a heart attack. On returning to England, my GP told me I’d suffered an acute panic attack.

Over the following weeks, I felt increasingly agitated and anxious. I was closing down and withdrawing from the world. I was seeing the world through thick clouded glass and anything I experienced made me feel anxious.

My firm was supportive, but over time it became clear to me that I couldn’t return to my previous job. I now work at a consultancy promoting wellbeing in the workplace. For me, it’s obvious: we need to use our minds to work effectively, productively and creatively. Therefore we need to make sure our minds are cared for, functioning and able to perform at their best.

Having a network of properly trained Mental Health First Aiders is a key part of the resources law firms should have in place to help people manage their wellbeing and mental health.

The training gives you the confidence to talk to someone about their mental health, your emotions and feelings. It enables you to approach these issues without fear. And it gives you the skills and confidence to recognise the signs and symptoms of common mental health issues and effectively guide a person towards the right support.

Armed with what I know now, I can see that I had been living in a panic for years and was in a constant state of high stress.

There are all sorts of circumstances which might trigger mental ill health: they could be in someone’s personal life, if they go through bereavement, relationship breakdown, having children or physical health scares. Changes at work can also trigger mental health issues – whether you’re starting a new job, coping with an increased workload, if you have poor relationships with colleagues or if you fear redundancy.

Noticing changes in your behaviour or someone else’s can be the first step in recognising a mental health issue, which can help you access the support needed to recover. They can be physical or emotional and behavioural, and there are some signs in the workplace that you could spot in your colleagues. They could include:

  • Increased errors, missing deadlines or forgetting tasks
  • Taking on too much work and volunteering for every new project
  • Working too many hours – first in/last out/emailing out of hours or while on holiday
  • An employee arriving late who is normally punctual
  • Increased sickness absence
  • Complaining about lack of management support or workload
  • Being fixated with fair treatment and quick to use grievance procedures

If you’re concerned about an employee it is important to reassure them that your door is always open, and really mean it. It’s particularly essential to keep in touch with an employee who is off sick.

Taking as little as ten minutes to have a conversation about mental health can – begin – to make a difference. Which is why Mental Health First Aid England is calling on everyone to ‘Take 10 Together’ on World Mental Health Day – to grab a glass of water or a cup of tea with a friend, family member, or colleague just to start that conversation about mental health.

Richard works with byrne·dean, who offer workplace training and advisory services. To find out how employers can support the wellbeing of their staff and demonstrate their commitment to World Mental Health Day, visit and download the free MHFA England Take 10 Together toolkit.