Understanding Mental Illness and Suicide Prevention | Workplace Mental Health


Despite increased awareness of mental illness in the last few years, the statistics continue to rise - particularly since 2013, due to the widespread introduction of smartphones. Our modern, technology-focussed world means that we are constantly 'switched on', are getting less sleep and have increased feelings of loneliness.

Did you know - employees take more time off work for depression than all other illnesses combined.

Take a moment to digest that.

The health and wellbeing of your people is so important - to their happiness and their lives, as well as your team's productivity, happiness in the workplace and your business' success.

Here's some information about how to be aware of and identify mental illness in the workplace, how to support your people towards good mental health and how to approach people who might be struggling.

What can mental illness look like?

Mental illness encompasses a wide range of mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, panic attacks and bipolar disorder. It can also be the impact of a brain injury, or shown through the contemplation of suicide.

Did you know -  50% of people plan suicide in less than 10 minutes - it is often spontaneous and instant due to something going wrong and/or a combination of the above factors. Most suicides happen between 12-3am.

Particular warning signs that someone might be contemplating suicide include:

  • Altered thinking and irrational thoughts, for example a small mistake at work becomes a disaster
  • Saying things like "I am a burden", "Other people don't like me" or "There's no point anymore"
  • Talking a lot about death
  • Suddenly getting better after a long history of depression
  • Giving away prized possessions
  • Writing goodbye notes
  • Feeling hopeless


How can we help people that might be struggling with mental illness or suicidal thoughts?

If someone in your workplace is struggling with mental illness, open a channel of communication with them.  Don’t assume someone else will reach out to them - you should always ask if you are unsure.

Start by approaching them kindly – ask them “I’ve noticed you don’t seem to be as happy as you were" or "I'm really concerned about you." Always probe further if you are unsure about their response. It is okay to be direct and ask if they are planning to kill themselves.

Take the time to listen, show empathy and be there for the person.

Make a safety plan for them – don’t leave them alone, seek help. There are support services and professional and expert help available but if not sure seek support from a GP. The family services directory is a great place to start.


Treatment for mental illness could include:

  • Counselling
  • Working through trauma
  • Medication


Additional ideas for treatment include:

  • Expressive writing
  • Mindfulness
  • Volunteering
  • Forgiveness
  • Getting back to nature


Maintaining good mental health

You don't need to wait until experiencing mental illness to proactively engage in positive mental health practices.

These tips are based on the Mental Health Foundation of NZ's Ways to Wellbeing. Try engaging in wellbeing-promoting activities more regularly both individually and as a team.


It feels good to give - do something nice for a colleague, friend or stranger. The Mental Health Foundation of NZ have some unique ideas here. If you're a manager or business owner, a great way to give can be by providing a workplace wellbeing programme like Best of Today.


Learning new things is rewarding and can help build confidence. Consider what things are on your bucket list that you would like to learn? Maybe it's a new language, a new skill, or even something as simple as a new recipe. Then, go about making them happen!

Being active

Find exercise that you enjoy doing, and commit to doing it regularly. The Mental Health Foundation of NZ share a range of ideas here.


Taking notice is all about the little things. Be aware of your surroundings, taking a few moments to be grateful, practising mindfulness, and being generally curious about the world around us. Here's some ideas from the Mental Health Foundation of NZ.


Connecting with your colleagues at work will improve your relationships and open new channels of communication. Ask genuine questions, take the time to listen, and show you care about your people.

Eating well

Eating good food and nourishing our bodies properly can have a huge impact on our mood and wellbeing.


There is a significant link between fatigue, poor sleep and suicide. Poor sleep can exacerbate mental illness and lack of sleep degrades our perception of risk. Studies show that people who are sleep deprived feel loneliness more intensely and have lower self esteem. Fatigue is a killer - it causes more deaths on road than drugs and alcohol and is the leading cause of workplace accidents.

To improve your sleep, try some of these tips from the Ministry of Health.

If you would like to confidentially discuss how to approach mental illness challenges in your workplace with one of our HR Partners, we invite you to contact us.

If you're looking for mental health support services, the Ministry of Health have a comprehensive list here.

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