Mental health awareness week was highlighted by the media in May. Poor mental health can affect every one of us to varying degrees and duration. The Department of Health considers that one in four of us will experience mental ill health at some point in our lives. Whilst dealing with mental health can be a sensitive area, it is important that as business owners, we do not shy away from dealing with it when it affects the people we work with. In this article, we look at the issues for employers when dealing with poor mental health in the workplace and tools to help you support positive mental health with your employees.
Your responsibilities as an employer
It is your duty as an employer to safeguard employees’ health and safety at work. From a mental health perspective this could include a duty to help to prevent your employees becoming ill through work related stress. Some larger employers will have a separate stress policy which details how it deals with stress in the workplace. Another key area to be aware of is potential disability discrimination. Under the Equality Act 2010 disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. If the condition does amount to a disability, the company, and any of your employees, are under a duty not to discriminate against them. This includes any failure to provide ‘reasonable adjustments’ in order to alleviate any ‘disadvantage’ that they may be suffering from as a result of their disability. Examples of reasonable adjustments can include specialist equipment, to more frequent breaks or reduced working hours.
Checklist for dealing with mental health issues in your workplace: Consider a mental health/wellbeing policy
Although 1 in 4 of us will suffer from it, mental health is still not talked about and subsequently, there is a great deal of ignorance surrounding the subject. The more informed you and your staff are, the more able they will be deal with it when it arises (as it surely will). The better the situation is handled, the happier the workforce will be, and productivity is likely to increase. In addition, by providing the right support to an employee who is experiencing mental health difficulties will reduce the risk of any successful claim for discrimination or personal injury. A well drafted policy which clearly sets out the support you can provide to individuals and then rolling this out to managers will greatly improve your company’s ability to deal with mental health concerns at work.
Be able to recognise the signs of an employee requiring support with their mental health
Indications of staff suffering from poor mental health could include:
- Being more likely to get into conflict with colleagues
- Finding it harder to juggle tasks
- Difficulty in concentrating
- Taking longer to do tasks
- Increasingly irritable
How to support a colleague who is off work with poor mental health
There is still a taboo surrounding mental health which impacts on managing staff absence and the return to work process. Many managers can find it awkward to know what to say when people have been ill, especially if it has never been talked about, or if their behaviour was unusual when they were unwell. My advice is to treat an absence for a mental health problem largely the same as you would any absence for a physical health issue. As with any sickness absence, managers should keep in touch with employees who are off sick so as to make the return to work process is managed properly and sensitively. When they return to work, be there to welcome them back and don’t shy away from holding a return to work meeting with them. If there are no further absences do not assume the problem has disappeared; check in with them now and again during one to one’s to make sure they are ok.
Ensure ongoing communication and feedback
Regular team meetings and confidential supervision sessions between managers and staff are crucial for staff engagement. In addition, as we suggest above, regular one to ones are good for mental health. Sometimes drops in performance could be a signal that a staff member might be experiencing distress. Before jumping into a performance management or disciplinary process, it is important that you address the matter informally and ask the individual if there could be any reason why their performance is below its usual standard.
Don’t wait until an employee does not feel well enough to come to work. Good mental health should be valued as a core asset of your organisation and senior managers should be identified as champions of this. Your company could introduce wellbeing surveys at work, subsidised gym memberships or other health promotions. Supporting mental health at work is more than just a yoga class during mental health at work week; it involves a systematic change in the way this illness is treated by employers. Looking after your employees’ health will ensure a more productive, rewarding and profitable business for all who work there.
Chloë Leyland, Enhanced HR Solutions, www.enhancedhr.co.uk