Employers tend to only offer flexibility and assistance to an individual who is ‘disabled’ under the Equality Act pursuant to the legal requirement to make reasonable adjustments. A minority of wiser, forward-thinking employers address mental health issues in the workplace at an early stage.
Mental health conditions are now the number one cause of staff absence, yet people still feel stigmatised when they struggle through work with mental illness or return after a period of depression or anxiety-induced absence. Employers and line managers, can do more to reduce this stigma and improve wellbeing. Firstly, employers have a legal duty of care to protect the health, safety and welfare of all employees. Secondly, staff absence leads to reduced productivity, increased pressure on other team members (who are forced to take on additional work) and, ultimately, reduced profits.
Mental health conditions, unlike other types of disability, are often difficult to identify and track, and therefore to manage and treat. Time and resources can be wasted by adversarial grievance procedures or litigation. We advocate that employers should take a different approach to mental health issues at an early stage. Organisations rely on having a healthy and productive workforce, so it makes no sense for employers to ignore staff wellbeing. Also employment lawyers will understand the risk that mental health issues in the workplace may develop into disability discrimination claims and cause an individual to resign and claim an unfair constructive dismissal.
Thankfully there are some simple measures that employers can put in place to support the mental wellbeing of their employees and change how colleagues with mental health conditions are treated in the workplace.
Engage leadership from the top down
It is important to encourage a culture of openness surrounding mental health, which has to come from the top down. Individuals in leadership positions have an opportunity to influence many people’s lives in a positive way, if they choose to. Therefore ensuring that senior managers understand the importance of mental health and invest the time and money into building wellbeing into the culture of the organisation is vital. The trickle-down effect works.
A supportive organisational culture able to deal with problems outside formal grievance procedures is important. Our experience is that grievances mainly do more harm than good. They entrench positions rather than address the issues. Any employer that focuses solely on the risk of ending up in an Employment Tribunal will be reluctant to concede that mistakes may have been made. Most employees prefer their concerns to be dealt with without the need for ‘accusations’ to be made, particularly if they are unwell and already feeling vulnerable. Bringing a grievance will often compound (rightly or wrongly) their sense of having to ‘fight’ for support or their feelings of being misunderstood. Alternatively, employees usually feel angry by the time they have submitted a formal complaint and this becomes worse if the grievance is dismissed. The result is often more complaints, not resolution, with relations irretrievably breaking down.
Create policies and procedures for employee wellbeing
Organisations should put in place specific measures to support people with mental health issues. For example, by creating employee guidelines that outline your mental health policy. You could also consider signing up to an employee assistance programme (EAP). This will provide employees with free, confidential access to professional consultants, expert referrals and online resources. EAPs help employees with a range of issues, from work life balance to emotional wellbeing. Often, an external voice is more powerful than an internal voice.
If someone is behaving differently, an employer should take the time to find out why as opposed to triggering the capability or performance procedures. Often, mental health crises will present in ways that surprise and infuriate colleagues. This can cause barriers to sympathetic attitudes, even among HR professionals. If the person becomes the problem as opposed to the condition, the solution is usually to remove him or her from the workplace rather than to help them remain a constructive member of staff in the long term.
Be a supportive line manager
Too often, people leave an organisation due to poor management, not the job itself. Good management is key to retaining staff and helping to control factors such as stress and unpredictability that can exacerbate mental health issues. Line managers should look for ways to minimise the risk of impairing the wellbeing of team members. In particular, consider any negative pressures at work.
Line managers also should be educated, for example attendance at mental health awareness sessions with experts in the field. Line managers are often under pressure and primarily concerned with hitting targets, so can easily forget that their biggest asset is their people. This is particularly true in teams that have a tendency towards perfectionism, where managers struggle to differentiate between “my way and a different way but still right” and so tend to delegate inconsistently and insufficiently.
Line managers need to spend time with their teams and have regular catch-up sessions. Simply asking “how are you?” can highlight the early signs of depression and anxiety, and help managers determine what practical steps they can take to support their teams. Encourage managers to take an honest, open communication approach and to offer the right support if anyone in the team experiences mental distress.
Managers who have used behavioural profiling as part of their team development may also be able to see behavioural shifts in team members that might give an early indication of stress or pressure that the manager can respond to.
We also suggest providing peer support networks and access to managers trained in mental health issues and avoiding conflict.
Constructive dialogue at an early stage can lead to creative outcomes such as redeployment. If such a solution can be found before relationships have broken down and the person’s health has deteriorated so much that they have to take significant levels of sick leave, surely that is a win/win scenario.
Promote wellbeing within the organisation
Creating a working environment that supports the physical and psychological health of your people will reap rewards for a business: employees will be more productive, staff turnover reduced and profits will increase. Actively promote healthier lifestyles, both within and outside the workplace, through initiatives, incentives and by role modelling positive lifestyle choices, where possible.
Time to Change: talking about it
Mental health is a big issue and it’s not going away. Although the responsibility to create a supportive culture at work may start at the top, everyone has an obligation to maintain it. The Time to Change campaign, led by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, has enjoyed great success with people speaking openly about the difficulties they faced and how workplaces either supported or, more often, discriminated against them. Consider running your own internal Time to Change campaign to encourage people to start talking about mental health.
There are limits, understand when the mental health sufferer needs to see a medical professional, such as occupational health.
We should all try and ‘walk in the other person’s shoes’ when assisting someone at work who is struggling with their mental health. Making assumptions about what the person needs may be counterproductive as, to state the obvious, every individual’s conditions and needs are different. The key is early and positive intervention, which is likely to enable the individual to remain a productive part of their team.