A woman in a hard hat talking to her team at work

How to support others through changes in their wellbeing

Signs someone is going through a change to their wellbeing

While some people are very open when changes occur to either their physical or mental health, others are less open and may not feel comfortable sharing, especially with a manager or colleague. It’s important to recognise that there are physical signals to be aware such as illness, rashes, weight loss/gain, changes in complexion but there are also mental health signals which may not be recognisable.

A few signs that could signal someone is going through a change in their wellbeing are:

  • Changes in their behaviour
  • They might be forgetful or regularly confused
  • Signs of pain such as crying, screaming or gritted teeth
  • Unable to complete physical tasks they usually do with ease
  • Decreased mobility
  • Changes in mood or personality
  • Increased time off sick
  • Lateness – turning up late for work or late back from breaks
  • Drop in performance
  • Change in appearance e.g. unkempt appearance

Remember that everyone can have an off few days, so use your best judgement on when to speak with them but if there are other issues going on, they may still appreciate knowing they can speak with you if they need help.

How to start the conversation

Starting a conversation about someone’s physical or mental health can be difficult. AXA Health’s Physiologist and Mental Health First Aider, Anthony Glock shares his suggestion on how to start that conversation:

  • Talk about what changes you’ve noticed and ask if they are okay. E.g. “you seem a bit distracted today, are you okay?”. Pull them in for a private chat rather than discussing things in front of other colleagues.
  • Ask them how they’re feeling and if there is something that has affected them today. If they are overwhelmed, finding a starting point can be helpful.
  • Establish the facts. They may just want to unload so everything comes out in a jumble. Help them structure their thoughts by using questions to help direct the conversation. E.g. “how are you feeling right now?”, “have you spoken to anyone else about this?”, “what support might help you now?”.
  • Make sure you ask them if anything else is on their mind. When they open up you may find there’s more than one thing affecting them. It’s good to use open questions and not make assumptions as to what you think is going on.

Communication is a two-way street and one important way of that is listening. Listening is the first part in helping to resolve a problem- if we don’t listen properly it’s harder for us to identify the real problem. To be a good listener:

  • Show you understand - this helps to reduce fear/nervousness in the person speaking
  • Helps you get a better idea of what is bothering them and how it’s making them feel.
  • Puts you in a better place to offer effective and relevant help.

If they have needed to take time off work or work from home keep in contact through different channels like emails, phone calls, text, skype etc. and keep them in the loop as much as possible (unless they have asked for no work-related contact).

Be flexible

It’s important to be flexible and adapt your management style with each individual as we’re all different. And this shouldn’t change when trying to support those with their physical or mental health.

Everyone will experience conditions and changes differently.

Some may only need a few days off and others may need longer. Some will be open about their feelings whereas others may hide it and only reveal it during a formal meeting. It is important as managers to respect your colleagues’ wishes about their health and try support them in the way they would like while sticking to company policies and obligations.

How to support a colleague

When people have changes in health it is your responsibility to offer adjustments to their workload and workspace to help them manage their condition. This applies to colleague who are off work but also colleagues who are continuing to work.

  • Keep lines of communication open with regular check-ins either via phone calls, video conferencing or face to face meeting. Try to have pre-agreed times to help with structure and diary management.
  • If an individual has long term conditions such as menopause, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, skin conditions etc, simply having some time off may not be useful. Familiarise yourself with work place policies and what support your employees have such as Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP), private medical policies, occupational health support, mental health first aid.
  • If someone is off work, a face to face meeting would be useful but it may be better to do this in a public place, such as a coffee shop rather than at work as it’ll be less intimidating for them. Keep them updated with team news and any relevant updates such as restructures or successes in the department. This helps them feel included and involved.

During the meetings it’s good to consider what you’ll speak about such as:

  • Asking if they are getting regular support through counselling sessions/doctor appointments, etc.
  • Depending on the situation you may have to consider an occupational health referral and when could be best to arrange this for.
  • As previously mentioned, remember to listen to them. If they aren’t doing as well as last time you spoke, ask them if they have had any challenges and whether they are happy with the level of support they are receiving.
  • Make sure you still celebrate their successes; however small they may be. It’s good practice to encourage and praise the person for achievements or progress they have made.
  • Help them set goals to achieve daily or weekly as this will help them build up their confidence. Reassuring them that if going outside and about is part of their recovery that they need to do it and aren’t expected to stay inside if they are off sick.
  • You may need to explain why the regular check-ins are important and why you value them. This can aid their feelings of being supported, valued and missed by their team.

When someone is ready to come back to work, you will need to prepare them and possibly the team as to the challenges ahead and how things will work.

Welcoming someone back to work

When anyone returns to work after a period of leave it can be very daunting. It will likely be harder the longer they’ve been off. There’s lots of ways to make it easy for them to re-integrate back into their role and the team. These include planning the return to work, first day back and a back to work discussion.

We all recover at different speeds so there isn’t always a set return date following a period of absence. During your regular catch ups, you’ll reach a point where either you or they feel it’s time to discuss coming back. When this time comes there is a lot you can do to reassure and encourage them along with helping them prepare to return.

  • Celebrate their achievement for the progress they’ve made.
  • Ask them what they feel they need or what will help them return. You can look at phased returns, keeping in touch days, change working hours, extra breaks, reduced workload, moving desk and/or refresher training.
  • Find out if there is anything worrying them about coming back. It can be surprising what might be on their mind. If you’re able to adjust for it or give assurances this will go a long way towards them coming back.
  • Agree a start date and time. Give them an idea of what their first day will look like so they can prepare.
  • Offer to meet them at reception on the first day if they would like. Perhaps you can arrange for an informal team coffee beforehand.
  • Ensure all IT systems, accounts, access passes are all working as sometimes these are disabled when people take time off.

When someone returns to work

When someone comes back it’s good practice to have a conversation to fully understand how they are and help them readjust to the working environment. If you’ve met them outside or at reception take them to their desk (especially if it has moved). They may find large groups intimidating so being there to reassure them can help ease any nerves.

You should try to aim to complete the interview as soon as you can. This allows you to judge if they are indeed well enough to be at work and set out your expectations of them and give them a chance to discuss any concerns or needs, they have. Make sure you hold the interview in a private room, try to include the four following tips:

  • Welcome them back and let them know the purpose of the interview and what you’ll be discussing. Update them on any information and changes they need to be aware of, even if you have been informing them while they were away as they might not have taken it all in. Check that they feel they are up to being back at work.
  • The next step is to discuss the absence with them and ask if there is anything they need to add or anything they want to discuss further. Encourage them, make sure you listen and give them your full attention, ask them if they have any specific needs and collect any outstanding doctor’s notes.
  • Ensure they know that you and the team will be there for support. It is also on them to let you know if the business can help them in any way. Discuss what support you can offer going forward. If they’ve had an occupational health referral this will give details on what they need and how you can help.
  • Check they are happy with what work they will be doing, give them adequate time to catch up with emails and updates especially if they have been off for some time. End the meeting on a positive e.g. how happy you are they’re back and have confidence in them. This will help them leave the meeting feeling engaged and ready to get going. Allow for time at the end of the meeting for them to ask any questions or raise any concerns they have.

Where you can get support

If you have noticed a change in one of your colleagues and they are taking more time off sick than they would usually, it is your responsibility to have a conversation with them and to figure out the reasons for their absence. Sometimes deciding how to support them and what help you can offer is difficult. The first place to get help with supporting someone is contacting HR. They should be able to provide further guidance and support for you.

You may wish to speak with your manager about what you can do to support them. If you have access to an EAP, they may be able to give you advice on what to do or you could even provide the employee with the contact details for them to seek advice.

Try to support your colleagues in ways you and they have agreed upon. Use your best judgement on a case by case basis as everyone is different and is likely to need different support strategies.