Would you be able to recognize SOS in an employee?

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Scientific interpretation

Would you be able to recognize a worker who shows early signs of distress or a deteriorated health? Workplace managers play an integral role in connecting employees with workplace mental health resources but only if they are able to identify changes in behaviour that indicate an employee is struggling.

In an article published in 2018, Jennifer Dimoff and Kevin Kelloway reported the results of two studies aimed at developing a check-list that workplace managers could use to help recognize the signs of struggle (SOS) in employees.

Expert adviser

Dr. Jennifer Dimoff, assistant professor, Applied Psychology, Portland State University

Author

Kimberly Sharpe, research assistant, University of British Columbia

This initiative was made possible through a collaboration with the Université de Sherbrooke.

What do we mean by:

Strain

The result of frequent stress, which persists over time or is very intense. It negatively impacts the health of employees and their ability to function normally. Health problems can include heart disease, stroke, and other chronic diseases, and suicide ideation.

Struggling

A description of workers’ behaviours when they may be experiencing mental health issues such as strain. Struggling can be understood as a general representation of distress or compromised mental health.

The article presents the results of two complementary studies

Study 1

The goal of the first stage was to develop the SOS check-list by identifying workplace behaviors representative of struggling or being stressed at work.

In total, 13 subject matter experts in occupational health, occupational medicine, disability management, organisational psychology and clinical psychology participated in two focus groups.

The second stage was aimed at confirming that the proposed check-list items were effectively measuring the SOS.
In total, 450 workers employed full-time in Canada were divided into three groups and asked to complete the SOS check-list while thinking about one worker they knew who either:

  1. had a mental health condition and had gone on disability leave as a result or
  2. had a mental health condition but had not gone on disability leave or
  3. had no known mental health condition and had not gone on leave.

Study 2

The second study goal was to evaluate the ability of the check-list to detect behavioural warning signs of SOS.

  • 30 full-time North American workers were asked to respond to surveys asking about their level of strain. In their turn, each worker identified a colleague working full-time who completed the SOS check-list based on the referring worker’s behaviour.
  • Workers’ self-reported levels of strain were compared against the colleagues’ SOS check-list results

Because studies must always be interpreted with caution
These studies were conducted with workers employed full-time in an office setting. More research needs to be conducted before the results can be applied to field settings, part-time workers and workers who telecommute.

What do the results of the two studies tell us?

The study proposes five categories of behaviours that workplace managers should be able to identify and respond to.

CATEGORY OF SIGN OF STRUGGLE

EXAMPLE SIGNS OF STRUGGLE

SOCIAL WITHDRAWAL

  • Participating less in shared coffee breaks or after-work celebrations.
  • Withdrawing from friendly workplace interactions with colleagues.
  • Decreased email engagement. Length and tone of emails shorter or more curt than normal. Taking much longer to respond than usual or not responding at all. 

PERFORMANCE

  • Failing to meet goals or deadlines.
  • Less responsive to work requests than usual.
  • Lower customer satisfaction ratings than usual.
  • Increase in workplace safety violations or injuries.
  • Conflicts with co-workers during team-based work.

ATTENDANCE

  • Arriving late to work.
  • Increased absenteeism.
  • Longer than normal breaks or more frequent breaks without permission.

EXPRESSIONS OF DISTRESS

  • Yelling at co-workers or crying at one’s desk
  • Mentioning high stress levels or expressing the desire to quit

EXTREME BEHAVIOURS

  • Expressing the intent to harm oneself.
  • Neglecting personal hygiene.
  • Violence or aggression towards co-workers.

Note from our expert

SOS check-list items are meant to represent behaviours that workplace managers would have to talk to an employee about as part of their responsibilities for managing that employee.

The most important thing for workplace managers to look for is a CHANGE in workplace behaviour, not just that these behaviours occur.

Example: an employee who used to keep their office door open during the workday starts closing their door, indicating they are avoiding workplace interactions. Alternatively, an employee who normally works with their door closed, now has it open which may be a message that they’re looking for more interaction.

Example: change in email behaviour. An employee who previously always included a greeting and closing in their emails, with a friendly tone throughout, now responds with a single sentence or even just one word.

It is worth noting that the SOS check-list should be used as a whole and that early detection of behaviour change should involve identifying both warning signs that are extreme AND those that seem more innocuous.

Indeed, some warning signs may be more readily recognized in the workplace, such as performance issues or more extreme behaviours, which may create a bias, causing workplace managers to miss other warning signs that may occur earlier or that are less extreme, such as engaging in fewer social activities at work or complaining about elevated stress levels.

Actions for employers

Workplace managers are in a good position to help struggling workers access workplace mental health resources, but there can be confusion as to what behavioural signs they should be looking for and how to approach employees once they identify them.

To support workplace managers in using the SOS check-list:

Action

Specific example

For organizations

TRAIN WORKPLACE MANAGERS ON HOW TO USE THE SOS CHECK-LIST

  • Incorporate the SOS check-list into the smaller pieces of your organization’s health and safety training, like organizational health and safety toolbox talks. It does not need to be introduced through formal standalone training. 
  • Help workplace managers build the confidence and skills that will help them navigate the recognition and action proces. Managers should be trained to know how, when and where to have difficult conversations. Employee assistance programs can help provide this training, as well as outside mental health awareness workshops or mental health first aid programs. 
  • Put the check-list in a visible location and have it readily available in electronic format. This will help keep the warning signs of struggle at the front of a workplace managers’s mind. 

PREPARE GUIDELINES FOR HOW WORKPLACE MANAGERS SHOULD RESPOND ONCE THEY HAVE RECOGNIZED THE WARNING SOS

  • Employee assistance programs can help organizations craft these guidelines and workplace wellness policies. 
  • Make a list of your organization’s resources readily available for workplace managers. You can also place this information in high traffic areas. 
  • Encourage workplace managers to develop action plans, either approved by the organization or with steps that fall within the workplace manager’s scope of responsibilities. 

PROVIDE OPPORTUNITIES FOR CO-WORKERS TO IDENTIFY WARNING SIGNS OS STRESS

  • Cultivate a workplace culture where co-workers can help each other if they feel comfortable. 
  • Train co-workers to recognize warning signs using the SOS check-list. Peer support training programs may be useful in educating employees how to help their co-workers in non-judgmental and professional ways. 
  • Ensure co-workers are aware of your company’s resources. Put information in high traffic areas e.g. employee assistance program information on a fridge magnet. 

For workplace managers

CREATE OPPORTUNITIES TO EFFECTIVELY USE THE SOS CHECK-LIST

  • Get to know employees so that you can recognize their typical patterns of behaviour. This will help you recognize if there has been a change in behaviour.
  • Schedule regular check-in sessions with yourself regarding their employees’ behaviour so that you can recognize early warnings of the SOS.

PREPARE A MENU OF RESOURCES TO OFFER EMPLOYEES TO AVOID MAKING ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT OR FORCE THE DISCLOSURE OF THE SOURCE OF AN EMPLOYEE’S STRUGGLES

  • Ensure you keep a list of your organization’s resources easily accessible, including the contact information for employee assistance programs and human resources. 
  • Occupational Physicians can help curate a list of resources. 

Attention !

It is important to keep in mind that the check-list is NOT a diagnostic tool.

Workplace managers should be aware that when an employee exhibits SOS, it does not mean that employee has an illness, it just indicates that they are experiencing distress. When approaching employees, workplace managers should focus on supplying information and resources that provide workers the opportunity to seek assistance, rather than try to counsel them.

Adapt the SOS to your organization!

The SOS check-list should be contextualized for your industry, organization or department.

What changes would stand out to you?

For example, in a call service centre, employee performance may be judged by call length, volume and customer service ratings. It may have typically taken your employee 2.5 minutes to solve a customer’s problem but lately it has begun to take 5-7 minutes. Perhaps the employee also now takes much longer gaps in between taking calls than usual or their customer service ratings have fallen. These behaviour changes are meaningful and noticeable in this context.

Check-list availability:

To learn more about the SOS check-list, please contact Jennifer Dimoff at Dimoff@telfer.uottawa.ca 

TO CITE THIS GLOBAL-WATCH SCIENTIFIC INTERPRETATION

Dimoff, J., Sharpe, K. (2019). Would you be able to recognize SOS in an employee?. Global-Watch Scientific Interpretation available at www.global-watch.com.

TO CITE THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE BY THE AUTHORS OF THE STUDY

Dimoff, J. K., & Kelloway, E. K. (2018). Signs of struggle (SOS): The development and validation of a behavioural mental health checklist for the workplace. Work and Stress, 1-19. doi: 10.1080/02678373.2018.1503359.

Pierre Breton
Author: Pierre Breton

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