Employees and pensions

How do I deal with psychologically strained employees?

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The working world is constantly changing. Employees increasingly feel they cannot meet the demands at work. The advancing digitalization of the working world can also trigger anxiety and stress. Every one in four employees in Switzerland shows signs of mental strain.

There are a large number of different mental illnesses and types of strain. Our checklists for managers will help you recognize them at an early stage. In this article, we concentrate on dealing with employees who are showing signs of burnout or suffering from depression. Attach the necessary importance to the subject of mental health at your company – with the goal of increasing performance, motivation, and the productivity of the entire organization.

We address the following questions: 

  1. What types of psychological stress are there at work?
  2. How can I tell if someone is suffering from burnout syndrome?
  3. When and how do I talk to the employee about the problem?
  4. What should I do if the mentally ill employee does not want to be helped?
  5. How is occupational insurance governed in cases of burnout or depression?
  6. In short: The top five tips for managers

What types of psychological stress are there at work?

A high level of pressure at work, constant interruptions, and management and team problems can all be relevant causes of mental stress. However, a lack of appreciation from managers, a lack of trust, or unsolved conflicts can also adversely affect the mental wellbeing of employees. The stress is often not just due to the situation at work. It arises from the serious interaction of stress at work and problems in an employee's private life. Even if psychological problems have their root cause in a personal situation, they are not only a private matter and can also have negative effects for the affected person at the workplace. For this reason, it is always the responsibility of the employer to respond.

The most common causes of psychological issues at work

  • The way in which work is organized (company culture, outlook, participation)
  • Tasks and responsibilities don’t correspond to the skills of the employee; the person is either overwhelmed or under-challenged.
  • Persistent, unresolved conflicts within the team and/or with managers
  • Unclear communication and leadership; no clear decisions or instructions
  • Excessive volumes of work and time pressure over an extended period of time; chronic stress
  • Digital stress through the use and omnipresence of digital technologies and the associated flood of information

How can I tell if someone is suffering from burnout syndrome?

Managers normally sense changes in behavior, work conduct, or in the social interaction of an employee very quickly. Some symptoms don’t seem disconcerting in the beginning. But as soon as these accumulate, increased attention is required.

Signs of burnout syndrome at work

The symptoms of burnout syndrome are varied and can have different causes. To ensure you can respond at an early stage, you as the boss should look out for the following early indicators of mental stress in your employees:

Work performance

  • Rebellion against managers
  • Avoiding employee review meetings
  • Lack of motivation, decreasing creativity
  • Initially increased activity during work hours
  • Working without a break, even in the evening and on weekends, often without added value of the work performed
  • High vacation and overtime balances
  • Many short absences
  • Increased fluctuation of performance and growing number of mistakes
  • Difficulty concentrating and forgetfulness
  • Resistance against new things; inability to learn something new
  • Changes in performance management

Social life

  • Increased irritability, conflicts, and cynicism
  • Social withdrawal within the team, the employee avoids joint breaks, for example
  • Relationship problems privately and/or on the job
  • Neglecting to maintain resources: Hobbies, health, social life, outward appearance
  • Difficulty making decisions

Emotional and physical condition

  • Difficulty sleeping, if known
  • Increase in physically illnesses, especially migraines or stomach problems
  • Mood swings
  • Apathy, hypersensitivity
  • Impression of helplessness and hopelessness
  • Overreaction to even small things

If an employee is headed toward a burnout, they will usually show several of the symptoms listed above.

When and how do I talk to the employee about the problem?

In the work environment today, the subject of psychological stress is still taboo. Those affected fear being stigmatized and losing their job. Ignoring obvious problems exacerbates the situation for all involved. It is important to address the issue if you suspect one of your employees is affected by mental stress. We explain how.

Even with the best of intentions, it is not easy to talk to someone about their apparent problems. It requires empathy, discretion, and good preparation. Managers cannot afford to ignore the signs of burnout syndrome, depression, or another mental illness. It can have unforeseen consequences not only for the affected employee, but also for the team and the company as a whole. The earlier you react, for example by talking to the employee, the better. At best, it can even mitigate the possible progression of the disease and improve the employees chances of receiving successful therapy.

Guidelines for employers and managers: Employee meeting in cases of burnout symptoms

In general, it is important that you as a manager create a basis of trust and an open and appreciative culture within your team. Invest in an open culture during "good times" and create the basis for open discussion for when the employees are not feeling well.

If you observe symptoms of a burnout, depression, or other mental illness among your employees, the first thing to do is seek dialog with the affected person. Talk privately to your employee, explain that you are worried, and arrange for a meeting in a calm atmosphere and without time pressure.

  1. Make space and time: You as the manager should ensure a calm, stress-free atmosphere. Hold the meeting in a separate room or take a walk with the affected person. Plan enough time so that you do not have to suddenly end the conversation due to another meeting. 
  2. Listen without prejudice: Avoid drawing conclusions too quickly (e.g. making a diagnosis) and listen to what the person has to say.
  3. Use “I messages”: “I am worried about you.” Show that you want to help and mention specific support programs, which you have researched in preparation of the meeting with the employee: The Pro Mente Sana foundation offers comprehensive information and professional help. As an independent organization for mental health in Switzerland, it is a help center for people with a mental illness, their loved ones, and therapists. It is important that you dispel any fear of job loss at the very beginning. Emphasize that your goal is to find a solution together.
  4. Make an appointment for another meeting: The first conversation can be very intense and emotional. Both sides now need time to process what has been said. In another meeting with the employee after three to five days, you can ask for feedback and talk together about additional measures and support.

What should I do if the mentally ill employee does not want to be helped?

Not every employee will want to talk about their problems at the workplace. There is a real fear of a stigma, and maybe even of repression, if a mental illness like depression is diagnosed. This prevents the employee from addressing burnout and its treatment with their manager. It is the right of every person to disclose as much about themselves as they want. Exerting pressure would only make matters worse.

In this case, encourage your employee to get support from an independent help center. Depending on the size of the company, there may be an inhouse care contact for employees. Or you can refer the employee to an external contact like Pro Mente Sana.

If the employee has suffered from mental problems for a longer period of time, and has even taken sick leave, then depending on the care management, daily benefits insurance or the responsible disability insurance office may be able to provide further assistance.

You can find the advantages of corporate health management (CHM) here

How is occupational insurance governed in cases of mental illness?

The law states that, when staff are sick, employers must continue to pay their salaries for a certain period. This regulation is socially motivated and derives from the duty of care that companies have towards their staff. In addition to a contractual continued salary payment agreement, the length of employment and the canton in which the business operates determine the actual length of the statutory obligation to make continued salary payments. This ranges from three weeks for employees in their first year of service to 46 weeks for long-serving employees. The Zurich, Bern, and Basel scales are used to calculate the actual length of time.

After the waiting period agreed with the company, the (voluntary) daily benefits insurance pays money (= daily benefits) – thus ensuring continued salary payment through the insurance in the event of illness.

In short: The top five tips for managers

The experts of AXA and Pro Mente Sana advise the following:

  1. Top management should show their strategic commitment to mental health.
  2. All managers should visit the ensa course “First-aid conversations for managers.” The goal: You learn how to be aware of the health of your employees and to detect and respond to changes early.
  3. Twenty percent of staff have taken an ensa first-aid course for mental health. Checklists with the most important symptoms of mental illness can be viewed at any time (digitally). The goal: Every team notices when one of their members is not well. Talking to the affected person increases their chances of getting better.
  4. Vocational trainers know the signs of mental illness in adolescence and are keenly aware of the particular vulnerability at this age.
  5. There is a confidential and professional contact at the company for employees with burnout syndrome or other mental illnesses.

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