Mental health at work – how to spot and handle a crisis

As an employer focused on the mental health and well-being of your employees, you have likely thought about the things you need to do to keep people well, such as an employee resource group, or mental health employee assistance programs, and using Wysa. Unfortunately, sometimes people are not well, and mental health crises can occur. Whilst more common among people with an existing mental illness or mental health condition they can happen to anyone, and responsible employers need to recognize the signs and know how to deal with them.

What are the signs of a mental health crisis?

A mental health crisis is when someone’s behaviors prevent them from functioning or indicate they might harm themselves or others.

Recognizing a mental health emergency at work is critical to ensure the well-being of employees and foster a supportive work environment. Here’s how employers can detect signs of a mental health emergency and ways to help:

Understanding a Mental Health Crisis: The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) defines a mental health “crisis” and “emergency” similarly as “any situation in which a person’s behavior puts them at risk of hurting themselves or others and/or prevents them from being able to care for themselves or function effectively in the community.”

Common indicators might include drastic changes in behavior, severe mood swings, isolation from colleagues and social activities, and neglect of responsibilities or personal hygiene. 

It’s not always easy to predict a mental health crisis, and numerous events might cause one. Factors such as intense workplace stressors, relationship breakdown, family worries, financial issues or a macro issue such as global disaster. People with existing mental health concerns may be more susceptible to a crisis, even if it is not a severe mental illness but more common such as anxiety or depression (which our All Worked Up research around the world has shown is experienced at a moderate to severe level by more than a third of employees).

Men are three times more at risk of suicide than women, but also less likely to speak up about symptoms, see a doctor or other mental health professional, seek advice on support, or even recognize that they are in crisis. This is why it is so important that people have access to anonymous resources that are available 24/7, like Wysa, so that they are always able to seek some form of support.

How employers can support employees with a mental health crisis

Know what’s normal

Close teams can often pick up on signs that something isn’t right. Managers and leaders should be aware of what ‘normal’ looks like for an individual, both in terms of their productivity and work quality, and their ways of interacting. If a team member is usually very chatty and stops speaking up in meetings, finds daily tasks hard, or starts avoiding team activities, that could be a sign that something is wrong. A punctual employee suddenly frequently late may also indicate an issue. These warning signs should be addressed, and if people feel comfortable, contact made with family members. 

This can be harder with team members working remotely or hybrid, so it’s important to have regular one-on-one catch-ups with all people and ensure these catch-ups are a time when both parties can be open and honest.

Undertaking an employee baseline understanding, based on the Wellness Action Recovery Plan can be really helpful. This allows employees to indicate what good looks like for them, what the signs they might be struggling are, and how they can best be supported. Every employee should have one of these, and it should be regularly reviewed – not just when mental health emergencies strike.

Use the Wysa Employee Mental Health Barometer. This will give you insights into current levels of anxiety and depression within your organization, without requiring individuals to feel exposed in sharing their personal problems. Although it won’t give you information on a specific employee, it can help you to recognize changes in your employees and understand if there is a company-wide issue such as intense work pressures.

Training & awareness

Offer regular training sessions to educate employees about mental health and train supervisors to recognize signs of mental health crises. Wysa provides workshops and webinars on all aspects of mental health and wellbeing, including how to spot a mental health crisis. All our webinars have been produced and vetted by a mental health professional, as is the tool, so you can be assured of clinical credentials.

Open dialogue

It is important to create an environment where employees feel safe discussing their mental health without fear of stigma or shame. All Worked Up showed that in corporate wellness programs and employee initiatives, people arenʼt prepared to speak to their employers about their mental health. When asked about mental health conditions they face there is a startling prevalence of symptoms that employers are unaware of. 4 in 10 in the US have depression or anxiety their employers are unaware of, and only 1 in 10 in the UK would feel comfortable taking a mental health day.

Psychological safety in the workplace is crucial. Psychological safety is defined as the belief that an individual can express themselves openly and honestly without the fear of negative consequences for their status, career, or self-image. In a psychologically safe workplace, employees feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, ideas, and concerns. This plays out by being comfortable enough to speak up in a team meeting, voice their opinions on a topic, and take risks that will be embraced rather than shut down.

Stigma can reinforce the notion that seeking help is a sign of weakness, which can cause people to feel hesitant to reach out for support for their mental health. That judgment causing them to not speak up can mean that challenges deteriorate, resulting in them being more susceptible to ending up in crisis. And because of stigma employees might withdraw from social interactions and support networks, thus amplifying their sense of loneliness, and downplay or conceal their symptoms when discussing their mental health, making it harder for healthcare providers to offer appropriate treatment.

Professional support

Partner with mental health professionals or organizations to provide counselling services and professional support. With Wysa for Employers conversational AI care creates an anonymous, safe space to work through worries and stressors, preventing them from escalating in severity and illness and Wysa’s AI is clinically proven to create a therapeutic alliance equivalent to a human therapist within the first week. Wysa’s AI conversational care guides users through both curated CBT programs and on-demand support, and in Program mode, Wysa checks in every morning and evening, supplemented by a human coach or therapist, if needed. For day-to-day stress, Wysa offers on-demand self-care through 150+ evidence-based exercises, including resources for anxiety, sleep, handling difficult conversations, and improving productivity. Wysa coaches offer private sessions with unlimited text messaging with your coach between sessions, so employees can chat online in between or as a replacement for in-person treatment. Where existing resources are in place, employees can book time with your EAP or in-house psychotherapy team through Wysa.

Have a conversation

If you’ve noticed that someone isn’t behaving as they normally would (e.g. they are more agitated or withdrawn than normal or just not themselves), starting a conversation and commenting on the changes you’ve noticed could help them to open up. 

Talking about someone’s problems isn’t always easy and it can be tempting to try to offer solutions when often the important thing is to listen. Let them know that you and others really care about them and that they aren’t alone.

Try saying something empathizing and non-judgemental such as, ‘I can’t imagine how difficult this is for you, but I’d like to try to understand’. Repeat what they say back to them in your own words to show you hear them and to clarify your understanding. Try to explore their reasons for living in more detail, and try to uncover any dark thoughts they have had. Reassure them that they won’t feel this way forever, and to just get through each day until this passes. 

Help them make an appointment with their GP for a referral for some longer-term support, and offer to accompany them if they would find this easier. In the meantime, encourage them to start using self-help resources or download a mental health app like Wysa. If they choose Wysa, help them to build their personal safety plan with the SOS feature. 

Always check back in with them later to make sure they are making positive progress.

Coping mechanisms

Encourage employees to develop coping skills and engage in self-care activities to handle stress better. This might include meditation and mindfulness, or structured CBT via Wysa that can help with reframing thoughts. Additional resources are available in Wysa’s self-help library.

But don’t leave it entirely up to employees. Recognize that employers also have a role to play, not only by engaging with well-being resources, but by reducing stressors such as intense workloads, high-volume meetings, and after-hours expectations. All of these can contribute to experiencing thoughts that put an individual at risk or danger.

Speak about suicide and self-harm

It’s crucial not to shy away from difficult subjects such as suicide or self-harm, as an open dialogue can sometimes alleviate emotional distress and makes it easier to speak up and get help if someone needs immediate support or treatment.

Run training sessions on suicide and suicidal ideation, how to spot warning signs, what to do if you have a concern, and resources that are available to help anyone who may be facing a health crisis.

Signpost to crisis lifelines

If someone is in immediate danger, it is essential that they get expert help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available in the US, and other countries have tailored helplines. Sit with someone to help de-escalate the crisis situation whilst they are awaiting support or emergency care.

Wysa’s SOS feature

Wysa’s SOS feature guides people toward local and national crisis care helplines. People can press this button when they feel in crisis, such as some form of self-harm. The SOS feature also offers the ability to create a personal safety plan and practice grounding exercises. Wysa’s AI continuously screens for people in crisis and facilitates signposting to local helplines, by monitoring words they use. Wysa’s SOS feature can also be triggered through daily mood check-ins or through the conversational AI picking up on words that suggest someone may be in crisis. Wysa’s SOS feature is freely available to everyone.

The mental health crisis is not just about wellbeing but is creating a very real and dangerous risk to people. As employers, we have a duty of care to support people with their mental health and help them manage their moods, emotions and activities so that they don’t reach the point of needing the emergency room.

wall street