Signs of a Mental Health Crisis in Your Accounting Firm

Gusto Editors

What are the warning signs of a mental health crisis? How might they show up in a friend or a colleague at work? 

Gusto’s mission is always to create work that empowers a better life. We care about your well-being in all ways, and on the job. That’s which is why we partnered with CPA Academy to bring you a webinar by coaches Amber Setter and Jamie Greene: “Mental Health Initiatives: A Business Imperative.” The duo discussed mental health issues, how you might help someone struggling at work, and why it’s critical to cultivate your own self awareness in the workplace.

Amber Setter is a consciousness coach who helps individuals and groups cultivate awareness to expand what is possible in their professional and personal lives. Jamie Greene is a coach with 30 years of experience as a psychotherapist. He has a straightforward, no-nonsense approach to coaching and holds workshops on everything from relationships to dealing with difficult personalities to understanding human behavior. 

Note: Gusto is not a mental health expert or provider. We urge you to seek advice and insights from mental health professionals should you have questions or concerns about any of this content. Insights for this article are drawn from Amber Setter and Jamie Greene.

Distinguishing between high stress and a crisis

Stress affects everyone. No one, no matter how successful or established, can avoid experiencing emotional peaks and valleys, difficulties in their personal lives, and periods of intense pressure. Most likely, everyone has had moments when they reached a threshold where they could no longer tolerate stress and acted in ways unusual to them. This might include getting flustered, being impatient, and letting irritation or annoyance be just a little too obvious. This does not necessarily constitute a mental health crisis.

“People don’t just suddenly get [neurotic]. [But] people get stressed out, people get irritable, people blow up—people lose their cool all the time.”

– Jamie Greene

Jamie explained that true mental health emergencies at work are pretty rare. While it’s great to be informed and aware, there’s no need to be hypervigilant. However, if someone is acting delusional and you feel unsafe, do not be afraid to call 911.

“If [someone’s really] acting crazy and delusional, you’ve got to call 911. … Don’t be embarrassed about calling 911. The [person] may need to be restrained, and who knows what’s going on there.”

– Jamie Greene

On the other hand, a person might not be acting delusional, but may be acting significantly out of character. Their stress might be palpable, and the environment might begin to feel very uncomfortable. Again, this does not mean they’re in severe mental distress. Ask questions that show your concern.

“It has a lot to do with how strange and odd the person is talking. Is someone really just talking strangely [and] sounding a bit odd? All you can do is be the normal person [and] say, ‘Hey, what’s up? Are you stressed? Do you need anything? Are you okay? Do you need a time out? Do you need to go take a walk around the block?’”

– Jamie Greene

In all cases, it’s always a good idea to exercise caution until you know exactly what you’re dealing with. Reflect back to them how they are behaving by asking them questions. You want to subtly show them that others are noticing their words and actions and that they’re just a bit outside the normal range of behavior in an office. 

Overhead view of two entrepreneurs meeting in the office

It’s never a good idea to challenge someone in distress. It could agitate a stressed colleague even further and put them on the defensive. Worse, it could aggravate a really troubled person and lead to your becoming involved in their delusion. Keep it simple:

“Just try not to get too confrontational if someone is a little bit deluded … for whatever reason. [Because they’re] getting triggered [or] they’re a little bit off, it’s important that you don’t challenge them too much. [There’s] a natural tendency to [say,] ‘What’s going on with you?’ But you don’t want to do that. You don’t want to get too involved in that because it can trigger agitation and aggression. All you want to do is say, ‘Hey, do you need anything? Are you okay? You seem stressed.’ Just mirror to them what you’re seeing.”

– Jamie Greene

The bottom line? If you deal with mental health issues at work, you’re most likely to deal with a distressed coworker who has simply reached their stress limit. In this case, you want to be careful and cautious, but also warm and concerned. This is likely to be someone you have worked with for a while, and showing kindness and humanity goes a long way.

How prevalent are mental health issues?

Mental health statistics indicate that a significant percentage of adults suffer from diagnosable mental health disorders, yet statistics don’t necessarily reflect numbers accurately. Mental illness is often seen as a weakness to feel guilty, ashamed, or embarrassed about. Unfortunately, there are sometimes legitimate concerns for why a person would not volunteer this information. There is a stigma around mental illness which can affect people’s relationships with their peers and even with their colleagues.

According to Jamie, most illnesses occur on a spectrum. Nearly everyone can pick out traits that might describe them in a diagnosis. The most important thing to understand is that there is cause for concern if a trait interferes with a person’s ability to work, have relationships, or live a stable life. 

“Pathology is really the issue here. Pathology means when a behavior is out of the range of normal. For example, when does drinking too much become pathological? When is having a social drink or a glass of scotch at the end of the day turning into someone who’s downing a bottle of whiskey and then becoming belligerent, or getting in a car and having a DUI? There’s a range here.”

Jamie Greene

Jamie explained that he’s not minimizing the severity of mental health disorders, but he did acknowledge that many people learn to live with some pretty distressing issues such as depression, anxiety, stress, and even suicidal thoughts. Unfortunately, the fear of admitting these things keeps many people quiet when they would benefit from help. 

Discussing these issues openly helps normalize them, which is critical to getting people help. Many issues can be more manageable with early intervention. If someone is enduring mental and emotional pain, the sooner they get help, the better. Don’t wait until the point of no return. 

“I talk about … keeping things below certain thresholds that are manageable. … We get to a certain critical point, and we just lose it [and get angry] because we [are at our anger threshold,] [which is no] different than having a blood sugar threshold. If we let our blood sugar get too low, if we don’t eat for too long, we’re going to get dizzy, cranky, and irritable, so we have to make sure that we manage it before it gets to the unmanageable point.”

– Jamie Greene

Amber and Neil expressed how important it is to normalize mental health issues. The more comfortable people feel admitting that they need help and seeking it out, the more we may see a happier, healthier society and workforce.

Warning signs of a mental health crisis

Jamie and Amber shared that mental health crises don’t always look like meltdowns in the office. More often, people suffer silently. Yet there are signs that may indicate someone is going through a difficult time. You’ll want to look out for drastic changes in behavior.

  • Changes in work hours (such as emails being sent at 2:00 AM)
  • Alternating between being highly engaged and then withdrawn
  • Missing work
  • Showing up late
  • Missing deadlines
  • Repeating errors
  • Blowing time budgets
  • Lack of interest
  • Mood swings
  • No longer friendly or polite
  • Loss of sense of humor
  • Significant changes in routine

It’s important to understand that these signs may or may not indicate a problem. Someone sending an email in the middle of the night is not necessarily having a manic episode. They could have insomnia, or they might just have been unable to sleep. Don’t jump to conclusions. 

“If somebody is a working parent and it’s normal for them to get back online … at 10 PM and do some work, that’s one thing. But if someone never did that and they’re sending emails at two AM, maybe they’re not sleeping and something is going on. Or [if] … all of a sudden they’re working 15 hour days, 15 hour days, 15 hour days, and then they disappear, … [that could indicate a problem.]”

– Amber Setter

A change in personality also needs to be significant for it to merit your concern: 

Two female colleagues beside each other while one is supporting the other

“I remember that show on MTV a long time ago called The Real World [that] said, ‘What happens when people stop being nice and start being real?’ [What happens when] there’s no capacity to hold on to your nice face and your positivity because life has squeezed you? So maybe there’s yelling at other people [and] there’s mood swings.”

– Amber Setter

The key takeaway is that you’ll probably notice a big shift in the way this person works, engages, and interacts with colleagues. 

“[Be aware of] any change in normal behavior, not just how much work is being done. [Keep an eye out for] anything out of the ordinary. We tend to be pretty much married to our routines. …  We are absolute creatures of habit, so when any significant change in routine starts happening, pay attention because something has been thrown off.

– Jamie Greene

According to Jamie and Amber, it’s about an overall pattern. Most likely, if you see a number of these characteristics and then notice that your colleague seems withdrawn, disengaged, and no longer able to laugh, it could be an issue.

Does this mean you march up to them and ask if they’re depressed? No, obviously not. You might simply ask someone if they need anything. You might show extra kindness and concern. Simply showing humanity can go a long way.

“Hopefully we don’t become too robotic at work, and we’re paying attention to our humanness.  A bit of humanity goes a long way, [as does] feeling like we actually have a community of support and people that we care about that we work with. That team spirit is fostered by whoever is managing and leading. … You want work to feel as cozy as home in many senses. Then [you’re] going to do a lot better work.

– Jamie Greene

Gusto’s always on board with putting humanity back into work.

Learn more about signs of a mental health crisis in your accounting firm

Severe mental health crises are rare in offices, but they do happen. You should never feel embarrassed about calling 911 if a coworker is acting delusional or aggressive. When interacting with this person, never act confrontational or get involved in what they are thinking. You could trigger agitation. 

You’re much more likely to encounter someone who has reached their threshold for stress or emotional pain. This person may act slightly out of character. Use your judgment. Simply mirroring a person by asking if they need anything or are okay can signify to them that they’re acting a little out of bounds for a work environment.

Mental health issues are common, but as they are taboo, they’re rarely discussed. It’s important to understand that they occur on a spectrum. Early intervention is critical if you are experiencing mental health difficulties. Getting care before you’ve reached your threshold is key.

Colleagues who are undergoing these issues are likely to have drastic changes in personality or routine. Consider the context before jumping to any conclusions. Look for a variety of indications before making an assumption. Honor that person’s humanity by mirroring them, showing kindness, and holding space for them.

Gusto’s mission is to create a world that empowers a better life. We understand that professional aptitude and personal fulfillment go hand in hand. Don’t forget to check out our other two articles based on the same webinar: “Why Prioritizing Mental Health Is a Must for Accountants” and  “A Guide to Supporting Your Accountants’ Mental Health.”

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Gusto Editors Gusto Editors, contributing authors on Gusto, provide actionable tips and expert advice on HR and payroll for successful business management.
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