Managing mental health in the workplace

If someone fell over or was taken ill at work, the chances are the company first-aider would be called in to fill the gap until the professionals arrived. An employee who develops a mental health problem however, may be much more difficult to spot – and even if people are concerned about a colleague, they often don’t know what to do to help.

There’s a growing recognition that mental health is an issue the business world needs to take seriously. It’s estimated that at any one time, one in six of an organisation’s workforce could be suffering from a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety. Stress is the leading cause of absence from work – although 90 per cent of people taking time off due to stress don’t give this as a reason to their boss. Research suggests that mental illness costs the UK economy £70-£100 billion per year.

These facts and figures have been well promoted, but a perhaps less well-known statistic is that 70 per cent of people with a mental health problem fully recover. Early intervention and support can play a huge role in helping people get better and get back to work, so there’s enormous benefit for companies in improving knowledge among HR and management teams about the whole area of mental health.

So if you are an HR practitioner – or a manager responsible for leading teams – how can you best support employees who may be suffering with a mental health issue?

Be alert to the signs

Most managers are probably aware of the some of the key signs of depression and anxiety – but it’s important to recognise that not everyone presents the same symptoms in the same way. The key is to look out for changes in behaviour that may indicate all is not well. Someone who is usually sociable may become withdrawn, for example, or a colleague who is always punctual and well presented may start frequently being late and appear to have lost interest in their appearance. Another previously confident and independent employee may appear to have difficulty making decisions or may start constantly seeking approval and reassurance about their work. The earlier you spot the signs, the sooner you can offer support and encourage the person to get the help they need.

Don’t dodge the issue

There’s an understandable tendency for people to tip-toe around a work colleague who may be showing signs of anxiety or depression. People are worried that raising the issue could make things worse – or that their colleague might break down in tears and they won’t know how to handle it. There is nothing wrong in expressing concern and asking someone if they are OK. A sympathetic enquiry can sometimes ‘open the door’ and give people an opportunity to talk about any problems they may be experiencing. It is, of course, not for the manager to try and ‘diagnose’ the problem and give advice – but once the issue is out in the open, it makes it much easier for management to work in partnership with HR to support the employee in getting the right help and advice.

Provide reassurance and signposting

There is still a great deal of stigma surrounding mental health and a real lack of understanding of what it is, and how it should be managed in the workplace. People are often reluctant to open up to their manager for fear it could affect their job or open them up to ridicule. It’s important for both HR and managers to improve their knowledge so they can take a positive approach to supporting people and helping them get back to work. It’s about listening non-judgementally and reassuring people that you will be supportive and will give them as much time as they need to get better. Provide information (not advice) and encourage the person to seek help via your EAP if you have one or by signposting them to other sources of support. Make sure people are clear about the procedures for reporting sickness absence, and help them with the practicalities if needed so that it doesn’t become an added strain. It goes without saying that you need to respect and maintain confidentiality.

Recognise that everyone is different

Don’t assume that everyone’s path to recovery will be the same. People will vary widely in the treatment they need, the time it takes them to recover and the level of support they require to make a successful return to work. People are generally their own best judge of what they need when it comes to getting back to work, so listen to what they say, continue to provide reassurance, and keep the lines of communication open. Having a single point of contact – so they have someone to turn to if they need reassurance or further support – can be helpful.

Plan for a successful return to work

Coming back to work can be a daunting experience for someone who has experienced a mental health problem. How they will cope on their first day back is often their biggest fear. Work closely with the individual to plan for their return. Be as flexible as possible, accommodating a phased return if needed, and give them the time and space to manage their first few days and weeks back to work in a way that is appropriate for them. Be open to discussing variations to working arrangements – such as flexible working or job sharing – to help ensure people are able to achieve an appropriate balance and maintain their well-being.

Advice and support for employers is available from a number of well-recognised charities (see below for web addresses for Mind and the Mental Health Foundation). In some areas, you will also find trainers who can help organisations upskill their managers with ‘Mental Health First Aid’ – a framework managers or HR can use to guide their response if they are worried about an employee or member of their team.

You may be interested in reading our guide to creating a mentally healthy work environment

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