How can I support a work colleague who has a mental illness?

There have been tremendous steps forward in recent years when it comes to raising awareness and reducing the stigma around mental illness in the workplace.

Much of this progress can be attributed to extensive media coverage and to the hard work of advocacy programs. Even so, knowing how to best support a staff member with a mental illness can remain challenging if you’ve never encountered the situation before.


What does mental illness in the workplace look like?

There are many different kinds of mental illness that can appear in the workplace: addiction, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and everyday stress. Some mental and psychological disorders are protected under discrimination law, including specific learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities, and diagnosed emotional or mental illnesses such as major depression or bipolar disorder.


What signs should I look for?

Mental illness symptoms differ for each person. Some people can experience repeated episodes, while others may have one episode and subsequently seek help and never experience any other effects of mental illness. Recovery time for each person can vary, too. However, there may be some themes you can recognise in a colleague or staff member’s behaviour that indicate that everything may not be OK with them:

  • Restlessness and tension
  • Easily being overwhelmed or upset (crying, getting angry or frustrated)
  • Difficulties making decisions
  • Struggling to manage their workload and meet deadlines
  • Always feeling tired, and coming in late to work
  • Avoiding spending time with their colleagues
  • Not accepting well-delivered constructive criticism
  • Losing confidence.


What can you do?

Work can play an integral part in recovery for anyone with a mental health issue. An employer’s support will play a strong role in helping establish a structured routine, contributing to a sense of purpose, enabling social interaction, and promoting recovery.

Whether or not an employee discloses the status of their mental health or their mental illness, the work that an employer can do to make sure that all employees are enabled to be their healthiest and happiest in the workplace is not complicated.

  • Offer support. R U OK Day exists for a reason, and it’s a great way to start a conversation. Show your support by asking people how they are, respecting their boundaries, and continuing to check in and be there for them.
  • Set clear expectations. Work with them to make sure they understand how they’re expected to perform professionally within the structure of support you’re providing.
  • Address the causes. There is a strong chance that certain relationships, behaviours and conditions at work are contributing or exacerbating their mental illness. Talk about those things, and consider ways to affect change.
  • Respect their privacy. Regardless of whether there has been disclosure or not, respect their right to maintain privacy around their mental health status unless they give you permission to do otherwise.
  • Encourage mindfulness and wellbeing. This is beneficial for all staff and includes prioritising their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. Consider the practices and workplace norms which contradict a wellbeing approach to work-life balance, and introduce ways to remedy them.

For support with your mental health, consult your GP or give NQ Connect a call.


Need help? You can find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online social and mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.