Navigating Emotional Distress in the Workplace

May 2022

By Ariella Soffer, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist

Over the past twenty years there has been a national movement, partially as a result of the tragic campus shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007, to train faculty and administration on college campuses to more effectively identify and engage students and employees who are at-risk for mental health concerns. This has scaffolded into the workplace and has become an important discussion to varying degrees in nearly every sector. The embedded goal is to both raise mental health awareness, while improving help-seeking behavior and availability of services for those in need.

In addition to my work in private practice, I am passionate about this endeavor of helping communities better understand mental health, to feel more equipped to identify those who are at-risk or in need of help, and also to learn how to intervene in order to help someone find the support they need. Today we will touch on this topic from the perspective of the workplace, and next month look out for a spotlight piece on ways to help as parents, as employers, as teammates, or as a friend.

What do we know?

Mental health impacts work performance and daily functioning at work which can affect the workplace as a whole. People’s personal lives bleed into the office environment, and can sometimes leave managers and co-workers with the responsibility of addressing what feels like a personal issue. The following statistics surrounding mental health demonstrate the vast impact it has on our society, and in turn, our workforce.

  1. Roughly 25% of Americans have a diagnosable mental health or substance abuse problem in any given year (MHA NYC).
  2. Anxiety disorders impact 18.1% of adults (approx. 40 million people) in the US, meeting criteria for a disorder.
  3. One in ten people struggle with depression, costing employers 44 billion dollars in loss of productivity each year (Right Direction Center for Workplace Mental Health through American Psychiatric Association Foundation).
  4. Depression disorders rank among the top five disability claims globally (in order: cancer, pregnancy complications, back issues, heart issues, depression).
  5. More than 25% of women in their postpartum period have a diagnosable anxiety and mood disorder.
  6. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 15-34.
  7. Only one half of those diagnosed with a mental health disorder follow through with treatment.

Does anything stand out to you about these numbers? Do the statistics seem compelling or relevant? In referring to the U.S. population, these numbers/statistics account only for the people who have been diagnosed and have sought treatment. They do not account for those who are struggling, but have not sought out treatment.

Many people are impacted by mental health struggles without realizing how these undiagnosed symptoms interfere with their daily lives and the attainment of their full potential. Often people experience symptoms that are psychologically based, yet aren’t aware of their impacts, which can include but are not limited to:

  • Sleep interruption, considered solely as insomnia, and not as a correlation to depression or anxiety.
  • Panic attacks and social anxiety being associated with fatigue rather than in conjunction with mood.
  • GI issues, weight loss or weight gain being thought of in isolation rather than being thought of as part of an issue related to one’s emotional wellness.

So what is the point of talking about this?

The goal is to help you become more aware and compassionate as a colleague/manager while providing you with an enhanced skill set; to help you become aware of signs of distress in order and raise your overall awareness; to help you feel more confident in discussing issues in a helpful and productive manner. Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting you become a therapist. The idea is to create a more supportive environment by learning to have better conversations about sensitive topics. Ideally, this conversation could be considered PREVENTATIVE, by engaging someone in a supportive way, prior to the presenting issues becoming worse, or becoming a crisis.

Let’s first talk generally: frequency, severity, change.

  1. Do problems exist on a continuum?
  2. Have behaviors changed?
  3. How impaired is someone’s functioning?

If you ask yourself these three questions when you notice any of the below symptoms it can put the observations in perspective.

  • Depressed mood/ irritability
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in things typically enjoyed
  • Lack of motivation/commitment to goals that were previously important
  • Abnormally and persistently elevated mood
  • Delayed reactions, slow movements
  • Agitation
  • Hopelessness (vs. hopefulness) for the future that things will get better
  • Poor grooming/Unkempt Appearance (especially if this is a change from prior level of functioning)
  • Self-injurious behavior/visible signs of physical injury (e.g., cut marks)
  • Increase in aggression/violence/hostility
  • Inability to make changes when aware an issue is problematic
  • Significant changes in appetite/eating/weight (increase or decrease); Also unusual/unhealthy eating patterns (e.g., restricting food intake or binge eating)
  • Sleep Disturbance
  • Level of social engagement vs. social isolation/withdrawal
  • Misuse or abuse of drugs or alcohol
  • Impulsive or risk-taking behavior

If you notice, all of these symptoms or behaviors are observable. It is always helpful to talk with someone about what you notice, what can be observed, as opposed to trying to diagnose a peer or team member. All too often in an effort to help, our human tendency is to try and put pieces together and make sense of what is going on. However, when it comes to something like this, it’s far less threatening to speak with someone about your concerns which stem from observations.

Then What?

The next step is to try and connect your observations with a manner in which you feel this person can get help. A few tips:

  • Speak nonjudgmental.
  • Engage in active listening vs. problem solving.
  • Ask open ended vs. closed questions; “How have things been going lately,” instead of, “Have you been good?”
  • Asking “why” questions can make people feel defensive, so instead try and make reflective statements. “It sounds like the divorce has been really stressful,” and empathize.
  • Use “I” statements, “I feel like you’re not yourself lately.”
  • Be careful about giving advice too prematurely as it can suggest we aren’t taking the time to really understand what is going on.
  • Stay calm, and ask questions such as, “Have you thought about talking to someone?”
  • Share if you or someone close to you has found it helpful to speak to someone which can be normalizing.
  • Share knowledge or suggest any resource that you can point to, which gives someone an opportunity to seek out on their own, “I’m not sure if you’ve heard of XYZ, but I’ve heard great things.”

Remember, there is always room for destigmatizing mental health.

This article serves as an intro into a vast topic. Stay tuned for a spotlight on mental health next month’s WEforum newsletter, and much more on seeking help in the months to come.



Ariella Soffer, Ph.D. is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist who owns a group practice in Manhattan. Dr. Soffer’s practice specializes in parenting consultation, sports psychology, perinatal mental health in addition to general mental health concerns. Soffer & Associates Comprehensive Psychological Services website can be found here:

Photo credit: syahrir maulana