Mind the elephant! To mark World Mental Health Day, we take a look at good practice in managing mental health in the workplace.

Human nature is an interesting thing. As a general rule, we’re well adapted to dealing with the things that we understand, that we can see, and that we can solve. But when it comes to the less tangible, visible and ‘fix-able’ problems in life … well, maybe not so much. And so it is that a colleague with a broken arm will most likely be deluged with get well messages, offers of help, and overt displays of concern on their return to work. Compare this with a colleague who takes time off for depression, and suddenly those equally concerned co-workers are generally running for the hills, avoiding the whole ‘awkward’ subject and hoping the individual will just blend back in seamlessly. So, why is it that most people can deal confidently and sensitively with the impact of physical illness at work, yet mental health remains the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about? Arguably, this can’t be down to a lack of care and concern; more likely, then, that it boils down to a fear of doing or saying the wrong thing, a fundamental lack of understanding about mental ill health, and the absence of a working culture that is open to addressing the issue of mental well being at work.

The case for a more concerted effort on the part of employers to tackle mental health issues at work is threefold:

The commercial obligation
Mental health problems are estimated to cost UK businesses £30 billion per year through lost productivity, recruitment and absence (Centre for Mental Health). Looking at it from a different angle, the cost of presenteeism during mental health problems (i.e. people attending work when they are not well enough to do so) is estimated at £15.1 billion per year (ACAS). If you think mental health problems just aren’t very common, think again: 1 in 4 of us will suffer mental health problems in our lives, and 1 in 10 employees have resigned a job due to stress (Department of Health). Enough with the stats (although there are plenty more to be had), but suffice to say that UK business simply can’t afford to ignore the problem. It’s time for employers to get involved, and that means tackling the root cause (where possible), fostering well being, engaging with mental health problems, and supporting employees showing tell tale signs of mental illness.

The legal obligation
Mental health is not an ‘on’ or ‘off’ state of being, so much as a spectrum. We all have good days and bad days. So what is mental ill health, and does it qualify as a disability? Mental illness can be defined as a condition that impacts a person’s thinking, feeling or mood such that it affects his or her ability to relate to others and function on a daily basis. Some, but not all, mental illnesses will be classifiable under the Equality Act 2010, giving individuals protection against discrimination at work, provided they meet the definition of a disability. Under the Equality Act 2010 a person is disabled if they have ‘a physical or mental impairment which has a substantially adverse and long-term effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. In the workplace such activities are taken to include things like using a telephone or computer, interacting with colleagues, following instructions, driving and carrying everyday objects’ (ACAS). As such, employers need to be mindful of their legal obligations under the Act to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace. A cautionary note, though – even a mental illness that does not itself qualify as a disability, could give rise to an indirect discrimination claim, if it is commonly linked with or resulting from a disability.

The moral obligation
Most employers care enough about the well being of their staff to want to do the right thing by them. Huge corporate effort goes into creating policies, practices and workplace cultures that attract and engage the best people, and this should be no less the goal when it comes to managing mental well being.

So, the imperative to act is clear. But the hard part is encouraging those needing help to confidently speak out, and giving those in a position to support, the confidence to reach out appropriately. Here we take a look at 5 ‘Do’s’ and 5 ‘Don’ts’ when it comes to creating a culture of inclusion for mental illness in the workplace.

1) Do look out for the tell tale signs. These won’t be the same for everyone, and this is where knowing your people becomes key. The more line managers are tuned into each individual in their team, the better equipped they are to spot any concerning changes in demeanour, time-keeping, accuracy, loss of focus, withdrawal, and even changes in personal presentation. Crucially, change that persists beyond just the occasional ‘off day’.
2) Do create open channels of communication. Make regular personal catch-ups with team members the norm, rather than something that feels overly formal and procedural. Done correctly (in private, with sufficient time set aside, uninterrupted, and in complete confidence), this builds a relationship of trust and support between employee and employer, and allows people to bring their whole self to work. If all you ever talk about with your team members are the key deliverables (sales targets and hourly productivity), it is highly unlikely they will feel comfortable discussing anything as personal as their health; mental or physical.
3) Do engage with the problem, but accept that you can only address the work-based influences. Mental illness might be triggered by a specific event or situation, or arise from a combination of experiences at home and at work, in the past as well as the present. Be empathetic on all fronts, but focus on what practical steps you can take to tackle the root cause of the issue at work (if applicable) as well as finding out how you can support the individual at work both short term (on the road to recovery) and long term (on staying well).
4) Do make reasonable adjustments. Examples might include flexible working, staggered hours, more frequent breaks, time off for support meetings or appointments (paid or unpaid), reassignment of tasks within the team, role reassignment, or changes to the physical working environment. Adjustments may be permanent or temporary, depending on the circumstances.
5) Do promote awareness, and create a culture that makes it OK to talk about mental health in the workplace. Train your staff, have a clear policy and communicate it widely across the business. Ensure that employee assistance programmes, help lines and support groups are widely accessible to all employees. The Mindful Employer Charter gives access to information and training resources, as well as providing links with other employers with whom you can network for peer-to-peer advice.

1) Don’t punch above your weight. As an employer, your role is to support rather than diagnose, advise or ‘cure’.
2) Don’t breach anyone’s trust or confidence. Agree with the employee if and how they would like information about their situation or condition to be communicated within the business.
3) Don’t avoid the issue and hope it will go away. Similarly, don’t paper over the cracks by assuming that one meeting or show of concern fixes everything. Spot the signs, address the issue and keep a sustained and appropriate level of support available to the employee.
4) Don’t make assumptions. The same diagnosis will manifest itself differently for different people, and no two individual’s experience of a mental illness will be the same.
5) Don’t define the individual by their mental illness. Keep a focus on the person’s skills, capability and performance when in good health. In the same way that you wouldn’t constantly reference the time when an employee took time off for root canal treatment, nor should anyone’s past mental health record define their capability and potential in their ongoing career.

What next? Well, why not start raising awareness of mental health in your office by holding a ‘tea & talk’ fundraising event. All you have to do is get together a group of colleagues, put the kettle on and invite them to make a donation to a mental health charity – it’s as simple as that!


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