Dealing with mental health issues in the workplace is hardly ever an easy task for employers.
After all, mental health can be seen as a sensitive and difficult topic to talk.
This can lead to some employers finding it tough to know what to do or say when they are faced with an employee with mental health issues.
Concerns on tackling these issues can be down to managers not having had any training on supporting someone with mental health issues, or employers being scared of saying ‘the wrong thing’ and landing themselves in hot water (and potentially an Employment Tribunal).
Ignoring the situation will not solve it, and the reality is that there are some simple ways to deal with these issues as and when they arise.
Time to change?
What is the solution, and is now the time to change attitudes towards mental health? There are various campaigns that say that it is.
You will no doubt of heard of the Heads Together campaign which is being supported by the Royal Family. During the campaign, Prince Harry opened up about his struggle with his own mental health following the death of his mother, Princess Diana.
Prince Harry explained that having lost his mum at the age of 12, he shut down all of his emotions for two decades. He explained how that had had a serious effect on his personal life and his work. He went on to explain that it was only with the support of those around him that he was able to seek support.
The Time to Change campaign is a similar campaign aimed at changing attitudes towards mental health and preventing those with mental health issues from feeling “isolated, ashamed and worthless.” It is backed by a number of celebrities including Davina McCall and Stephen Fry.
Talk, talk, talk
The focus of the campaigns is to get people talking about mental health and to break down the stigma often attached to it.
So what can employers do to encourage employees to be open with them, and why is it important?
Two contrasting experiences
During mental health awareness week, Metro reported about a guy called Darnell Hathaway.
Darnell had suffered from depression for a long time. After the birth of his second son, Darnell returned to work after his paternity leave. On returning to work, Darnell felt anxious about the possibility that he had missed something and had caused issues for people whilst he was off. He also worried about the new baby and his wife whilst he was back at work. It got so bad for Darnell that he was physically sick at work, and ended up crying at his desk.
When he approached his manager to explain how he was feeling, Darnell was made to feel like he was being silly and that he needed to ‘man up’ and get on with things. When he broke down at work, he asked to leave the office for the day but was told that he could not.
With little to no support from his employer, Darnell could not continue to work and was subsequently signed off with stress by his GP.
The Time to Change website tells the story of a guy called Dan. Like Darnell, Dan had suffered from anxiety for the majority of his adult life.
Three months into a new job, Dan started experiencing full-blown panic attacks, and what he describes as ‘debilitating depression’.
Dan recounts how he woke in the night unable to breathe and nauseous. It got to the point that he could not get out of bed, and he had no choice other than to call in sick to work.
Dan was terrified to tell his manager that he was suffering from anxiety and depression through fear of being considered a ‘failure’ by those who he worked with. But Dan was wrong. When he told his manager, his manager was very caring and supportive, even to the point that Dan described his manager’s reaction as a “turning point” for him.
With the support of his employer, his family and his GP, Dan was able to return to work.
What is the solution?
It is important to remember that you do have tools in your armoury to deal with issues of mental illness as and when they arise.
Here are our handy tips:
- Talk, talk, talk – the key is communication, and so make sure that employees know that they can raise issues with their line manager and HR and that any issues will be dealt with confidentially.
- Independent counselling services – services that are independent of you as the employer can be useful, especially if the employee isn’t ready to raise it with you as their employer.
- Provide training – as with anything, how does anyone know what to do unless they have training or experience? A common problem is that managers do not have any training on how to spot or deal with mental
health issues. As a result, they either end up ignoring the issue or getting themselves into hot water. If a line manager identifies that one of their team seems to be struggling, they should take guidance from HR about
how best to approach the employee.
- Act – talking is great, but unless that leads to a plan of action to deal with the issues raised, the benefit can be lost. So, make sure you follow up and do what you can.
- Occupational health – referrals to occupational health can be a good way to seek independent medical advice on the employee, including any adjustments that you could make to their working environment.
- Policy – check your handbook to see whether you have an up-to-date stress at work policy in place, that employees know about it, and that you implement it.
What are the consequences of bad practice?
There are two angles to look at here:
- The cost to the business of having an employee that is maybe taking more time than average off and is perhaps not performing to their full potential; and
- The potential cost of an Employment Tribunal claim if you as the employer do not deal with the issues.
It is important to remember that, just because someone is stressed, it does not automatically mean that they are ‘disabled’ for employment law purposes.
However, employers should be alert to the fact that the particular employee may suffer from a mental health condition which would be classed as a disability under employment law.
If this is the case, and you as an employer do not deal with the issue, the risk is that the employee may issue a claim in the Employment Tribunal for discrimination.
Compensation for discrimination is uncapped and so this could present a big financial cost to your business should you be on the wrong end of a successful discrimination claim.