Nervous breakdown at work

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Health Assured team

13 December 2019

The work environment can be a fun, fulfilling, challenging, satisfying or rewarding environment. However, it can also be the source of stress or anxiety, which can lead to other underlying mental health conditions.

When left unaddressed, these conditions can develop into more severe mental health issues. One of which is a nervous breakdown.

They can happen at any time under a variety of circumstances. Mental health first aid (MHFA) training is important to help employers recognise the path to a breakdown and to recommend the appropriate professional help.

If you require immediate support for your employees, contact Health Assured on 0844 892 2493 for information on how we can help.

In this piece, we’ll explore nervous breakdowns at work. As well as defining it, we highlight the main causes and symptoms. We’ll also offer some tips for supporting your employees experiencing a nervous breakdown.

What is a nervous breakdown?

It refers to instances of intense mental distress an individual might experience. It’s related to increases in stress levels and can cause the sufferer to be unable to function or perform their regular duties.

Simply put, a nervous breakdown (or a mental breakdown) is your brain’s reaction to extreme stress as a result of being overcome by frustration, upset, burnout, anxiety or depression. It’s worth noting, because there isn’t an agreed-upon definition for a nervous breakdown, some people can also refer to it as an emotional meltdown.

However, although some of their symptoms do overlap, a nervous breakdown isn’t the same as a panic attack. As opposed to nervous breakdowns, panic attacks tend to last for shorter periods and cause a lot of physical symptoms. Reoccurring panic attacks may lead to a diagnosis of panic disorder, which is a type of anxiety disorder.

When a nervous breakdown is work-related, some professionals refer to it as burnout syndrome. It’s most likely brought on by stress from work including upcoming deadlines, increased workloads, unreasonable targets, etc.

While it’s not considered a ‘medical health diagnosis’, it does have serious implications and can affect every part of an employee’s life - including work.

How long does nervous breakdown last?

A meltdown at work can last anything from an hour for one person to one week for another.

Because nervous breakdown isn’t a diagnosed medical condition, there’s no official definition or criteria to describe it - including its duration.

Instead, there are several risk factors that can cause a nervous breakdown and the more an employee has, the greater the risk of it occurring. These include:

  • Undiagnosed or unaddressed mental health condition
  • Overwhelmed with responsibilities at how or at work
  • Traumatic experiences such as abuse, death or serious illnesses
  • Substance abuse as coping strategies
  • Inability to release control or to delegate
  • Ignoring personal health including hygiene, diet or exercise

Signs of a nervous breakdown

There are many signs that indicate an employee is being overwhelmed by mental health issues. By being able to identify these signs, you’ll be in a better position to offer support and recommend the appropriate professional help.

Nervous breakdown symptoms vary depending on the individual and the underlying cause of the breakdown. But they could be physical, psychological or behavioural. However, common signs to look for include:

  • Extreme mood swings
  • Panic attacks
  • Emotional outburst
  • Lack of concentration
  • Increased cases of absenteeism
  • Reduction in productivity levels

Those experiencing nervous breakdown may also feel:

  • Exhaustion
  • Paranoia
  • Insomnia or unregulated sleep patterns
  • Anxious or irritable
  • Feeling signs of depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Isolated
  • Depersonalised

When an employee is experiencing a nervous breakdown, you may find they’ll avoid social functions, call in sick or isolate themselves more often. Keep an eye out for these signs and act accordingly.

Nervous breakdown treatment options

Although not technically a diagnosable condition, those that experience it or something similar are normally diagnosed with a mental illness that underlies the illness including depression and stress or anxiety disorders.

Because it can occur at any time, it’s important to know how to help someone having a nervous breakdown or experiencing an emotional meltdown at work.

In previous pieces, we’ve highlighted ways to reduce stress. The solutions highlighted also apply to support an employee experiencing a nervous breakdown.

Other ways to support your staff include:

  • Creating a culture that supports staff to be open about their mental health
  • Offering Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Considering changes to working hours and workloads
  • Providing mentoring or supervision opportunities
  • Creating a ‘safe space’ where employees can have some time out

Nervous breakdown recovery – planning the return to work

It’s not uncommon for an employee to need some time off work to recover when they’re unwell (mentally or emotionally). Upon their return to work after this period of absence, it’s important to have an initial conversation with them to develop a plan.  

As well as supporting their return to work, a return-to-work interview is also essential for building trust and engagement with the employee and ensuring that that the

Together with your employee, you’ll create a plan that addresses their health needs and ensures their return to work is supported through appropriate and agreed steps. The plans may include:

  • Reasonable adjustments needed for the working environment
  • On-the-job support from managers or HR
  • Phased return to work if necessary
  • Implement a buddy system
  • Involve them in office activities

With one in four people suffering a mental health issue at some point in their life—which could spiral into a breakdown—it’s vital that people in your office know how to spot and help out when their colleagues might be under too much strain.

Adult Mental Health First Aid (MFHA) is a two-day educational course. In the same way that people learn physical first aid, MHFA teaches you how to recognise signs of developing mental health issues. Health Assured offer this course in a place that suits you—we can even deliver it on-site.

You’ll learn to:

  • Identify the early stages of a mental health problem
  • Help someone who’s dealing with a mental health issue
  • Help stop someone from self-harming or hurting others
  • Help stop mental ill health from worsening
  • Help someone have a quicker recovery
  • Guide someone towards proper professional help
  • Break the stigma of a mental health problem

This training isn’t going to make every issue better overnight. But arming your people with the tools to help out and prevent negative mental health from taking over—even in just one colleague—will save money, save time, and let your people live their lives at work and home without worrying about stress getting too much for them.

Expert support

Contact Health Assured today for more information on mental health first aid training or our Employee Assistance Programme. To find out more information, call us free on 0844 892 2493.

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