12 signs that someone may be struggling with the current situation and 10 ways to have a conversation about it

sad woman looking out of the window, grief, bereavement

After the shock and trauma of the last six months – and now with another lockdown announced – poor mental health is on the increase in the workplace.

This can show itself in different ways for different people and may be more difficult to spot when you’re working remotely.   Some people are experiencing burnout, while others feel a low-level sense of chronic anxiety in the pit of their stomach.

Whether you’re concerned about a team member, a report or a work colleague (or yourself) here are some signs to look and listen out for:

  1. Changes in eating and drinking habits: drinking more alcohol to relax or more coffee as a way of artificially counteracting the tiredness that many people are experiencing. Eating more than usual to ‘comfort’ eat; craving sugar and carbs in particular or experiencing a loss of appetite as people’s stomachs become sensitive due to anxiety or indigestion.
  2. Looking unusually dishevelled or unkempt: we’ve all got more casual while working from home but be alert to signs that someone isn’t looking after themselves as well as they used to.
  3. Difficulty in getting to sleep or waking early: sleep that doesn’t refresh. Looking or sounding exhausted.  Nodding off in large group zoom calls (easily done).
  4. A change in responsiveness: becoming more reactive such as losing their temper or snapping; being on a short fuse. Or the opposite: a shutting down and looking or sounding lethargic, blank or frozen. Emotional lability: unexpected outbursts of crying or laughing, seemingly inappropriate reactions to others’ comments or actions.
  5. An inability to focus: ‘butterfly brain’, difficulty in concentrating, forgetfulness, losing track of thoughts, not being able to attend to the matter in hand.
  6. Low energy: a loss of motivation and purpose. A ‘what’s the point?’ attitude.  Feeling or sounding drained, listless or hopeless.
  7. Loss of productivity; a slippage in the quality of work from the standard you usually expect such as sloppy execution, missed deadlines, silly mistakes.
  8. An obsession with detail or getting ‘control-freaky’ as an attempt to control what we can control when there’s so much that’s beyond our control at the moment. Compulsive overwork: a loss of perspective and balance between work and home life, difficulty in switching off.
  9. Agitation: a feeling of being ‘wired’ and physically and mentally taut. Excess talking or moving around, fidgeting, tapping and unable to relax.
  10. Catastrophising or an obsession with the news and R numbers; an inability to see any positive aspects to life. A growing compulsion with cleaning and washing more than is reasonable and prudent.
  11. And the opposite: excess jollity, flippancy, a forced positivity; ‘gallows humour’.
  12. Feeling isolated and helplessness; not being able to mobilise usual personal resources and ways of helping themselves.

And if you do spot any of these signs or feel uneasy for any other reason about the mental wellbeing of one of your reports or colleagues, how on earth do you start a conversation about it?

Take a breath – here are some ways to help you:

  1. Sounds obvious – ask people. Don’t assume, think it’s someone else’s problem, think you’d better not intrude or that you don’t have the skills.  Ask how they’re doing, how they’re feeling, how they’re managing at the moment, what’s going well, what’s not, and ask if they’re OK.  Maybe say you thought they weren’t quite themselves recently.  Share how you feel too as a way of showing that it’s OK to speak about mental health. This is a time for empathy, courage and sensitivity.
  2. Ask if they would like to put some time aside later to talk about how they’re finding things at the moment.
  3. Ask gentle, open questions. Let them say as much or as little as they want to.  Don’t try to get them to open up if they don’t want to.
  4. Talk generally about ways of destressing. Say what works for you and ask what they do that helps them.
  5. Acknowledge whatever they’re experiencing without making a judgement, diagnosing, giving advice, offering instant solutions or trying to ‘fix’ them.
  6. Ask what help they would like – from you and from others.
  7. Ask if you can check back in with them in a week or two. Stay connected.  Be kind, be caring, take an interest – show that you genuinely mind how someone might be feeling at the moment.
  8. Do an honest check in with yourself; how are you doing? Know your limits.  We all have them.  Read through the behavioural signs above – do any of them apply to you?
  9. If you do have to extend yourself or your team for a short period of time, ensure that you all have time afterwards to pause and to regroup your resources physically and psychologically. Don’t keep pushing, most of us have less energy at the moment.
  10. As a manager or leader, don’t take your team’s resilience for granted.  Trust your intuition if you’re concerned about a colleague.

And some resources

Remind yourself and the other person you’re having conversations with about sources of help:

  1. Look at options available such as workplace counsellors, an EAP scheme, Occupational Psychologist, HR Business Partner, Time to Change or Mental Health Champion.
  2. Your GP practice will have information about local therapists, stress management programmes and community mental health resources.
  3. Find a counsellor or therapist here:




  1. Other useful information such as phone lines, tips, meditations and podcasts here:




www.thecalmzone.net (for men specifically)





Drinkline: 0300 123 1110

Wendy RoseAbout the author

Wendy Rose is a leadership and executive coach with a background in psychotherapy, mental health and managing stress. She specialises in working with leaders when they are experiencing any kind of personal, professional or organisational change.  Worried that you or someone at work is struggling?   Get in touch for a confidential conversation about how I can help.


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