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Managing mental health – five key considerations

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Managing employees with mental health issues is complicated, and poor mental health has significant consequences for businesses including lost productivity and increased staff turnover, write employment law experts Claire Merritt and Tabytha Cunningham

It is also a significant factor in absence days with over half of all the working days lost in the UK due to ill health being connected to mental ill health. These are the key things you should be considering when managing your employees with mental health issues:

1  Be clear on your obligations

Given that many still feel cautious about disclosing mental health issues, some business leaders may feel unclear about how much they can or indeed should, support their staff. Employers are responsible for helping employees manage work-related stress. 

The legal obligations are:

• to take reasonable care of employees’ health and safety; and

• to assess the risk of stress-related ill health arising from work activities.

You should therefore be mindful of risk factors and manage these where possible. They are:

• Long hours

• Unrealistic expectations

• High-pressure environments

• Lack of control in your workload

• Job insecurity and change

• Lone working.

It is also important to note that some mental health issues will be classified as a disability, which means that reasonable adjustments must be made in the workplace. Any adjustments will depend on the individual, but some common changes we see include different hours, a phased return after a long absence, reduced workload, or giving the employee a mentor.

2  Take proactive steps

Preventative measures are really important. Steps businesses can take are:

  • Check in with employees regularly with individual and team catch-ups
  • Create a positive atmosphere which encourages conversation
  • Encourage employees to use the support tools available to them
  • Encourage a positive work/life balance
  • Appoint mental health first aiders to help spot issues early, and so staff have someone to talk to who is not their manager.

3  Know the triggers

Knowing whether an employee is struggling with mental health issues can be incredibly difficult. Behavioural factors that you may see are:

  • Lateness
  • Withdrawal
  • Working long hours, change in work pattern
  • Uncharacteristic problems with colleagues
  • Absences.

These behavioural red flags are even harder to spot when someone is working from home, so it makes open communication even more important. Some situations we see with our clients are:

The implosion – This is when a manager knew nothing about the mental health issues and then suddenly the employee is off sick for a long period.

  • The impotent manager – The manager is too fearful to address issues and communication is rare or non-existent.
  • The chronically embittered – A spiral of employee anger. 
  • The fearful employee – Some employees will not share that they have a mental health issue for fear that it will affect their career, how they are viewed at work, or their future prospects.

Good communication is often the first step in preventing these situations happening in your business.

4  Keep open communication

When an employee discloses a mental health issue, the first step is to ensure they feel safe and listened to. It’s so important not to shy away from the issues raised. The most common complaint we hear from employees is that their concerns were dismissed or not taken seriously.

Listen to staff concerns, and don’t feel that you have to offer an immediate solution. It will usually be enough simply to come away with an understanding of the employee’s concerns and the employee feeling they have been listened to. You can then consider afterwards how you can best support the employee.

5  Follow a robust performance management process

Poor mental health can affect performance. When mental health issues play a role, managers should adjust performance management procedures so that they remain fair. For instance, something we often see is the employee having a friend or family member attend meetings. 

  • A fair performance management procedure will involve:
  • Consultation with the employee
  • Medical investigation
  • Considering re-deployment
  • Reasonable adjustments.

Ultimately when it comes to managing mental health in your business, you are not expected to have all the answers, and often third-party support such as occupational health will be necessary. While mental health issues are complex, we can summarise by encouraging you to remember three key things for good management:

  • Be as proactive as you can and don’t shy away from issues
  • Ensure you have fair processes in place
  • Get help from medical professionals and other organisations.

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