Mental Health in the Workplace

Work-related stress and poor mental health risk becoming a health and safety crisis for Great Britain’s workplaces. While the full impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is yet to be fully understood, mental health issues are the number one reason given for sick days in the UK. Last year, more than 17 million working days were lost because of stress, anxiety, or depression. A recent survey by the charity Mind suggests that two in five employees’ mental health had worsened during the pandemic.

HSE launches Working Minds campaign to encourage employers to promote good mental health in work

In response, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) launched its new campaign, ‘Working Minds’, in November 2021 at its ‘Health and Work Conference’, which examines issues relating to health at work.

The campaign aims to help businesses recognise the signs of work-related stress and make tackling issues routine. While ‘Working Minds’ is specifically targeting six million workers in small businesses, HSE is calling for a culture change across Britain’s workplaces, to ensure psychological risks are treated the same as physical ones in health and safety risk management.

Advice for managers on mental ill health conditions

Talking at an early stage

As a manager, you may have employees who experience mental health difficulties. As soon as you notice that an employee is having difficulties, talk to them – early action can prevent them becoming more unwell.

If the person does not want to speak to you, suggest they speak to someone else; for example, someone from your employee assistance programme, occupational health team or their own GP.

Managers should concentrate on making reasonable adjustments at work, rather than understanding the diagnosis. Their GP, medical support or occupational health should be able to provide guidance on what you can do to help them.

If an employee goes off sick, lack of contact or involvement from their manager may mean they feel isolated, forgotten or unable to return. You can reduce the risk of them not returning to work by:

  • keeping them informed about what is going on, including social events
  • reassuring them early on and throughout their absence

Use routine management tools to identify and tackle problems or needs

Use scheduled work meetings, appraisals or informal chats about progress to find out more about any problems an employee may be having. You could have health and safety as an agenda item at meetings. As well as things like display screen equipment assessments etc, this can be used for stress or mental health issues.

If you have specific concerns about someone’s health, talk about these at an early stage. Ask questions in an open, exploratory and non-judgemental way. These conditions affect people differently, so making adjustments to their job could relieve symptoms. You should be positive and supportive while exploring the issues and how you can help.

If a person has been off sick, you should discuss their return to work and reintegration into the workplace beforehand. A written plan can help. You both might want to agree when they have reached the stage of ‘business as usual’. At this point, you can use existing management processes to review their performance, needs and work plan.

Supporting an employee who is tearful and upset

If an employee gets upset, talk to them, reassure them, and tell them that you will give them all the help and support available. Explain that things will go at a pace that suits them. If you are in a meeting with them, ask if they would like someone else with them.

Try to be sensitive to the level of information the person can cope with. In the middle of a crisis, they may not be able to think clearly and take in complex information. Try to stay calm yourself.

Problems can build up over time and while you may feel pressure to do something, it might be better to take some time to think about options properly. Agree with the person which issues are most urgent.

If the session is not helpful for the person or you, rearrange it for when they are less upset. If the problem carries on, you should encourage them to seek help, for example from occupational health or their GP.

A much smaller number of people will experience more severe anxiety or depression. These can be associated with episodes of ‘mania’, which can include:

  • extreme, heightened activity
  • psychosis
  • loss of touch with reality
  • hallucinations
  • distortion of the senses

In these rare instances, an employee may behave in ways that impact on colleagues or clients and you should keep your responsibilities for all employees in mind.

Take the person to a quiet place and speak to them calmly. Suggest that you could contact a friend or relative or that they go home and contact their GP or a member of their mental health team, if appropriate. You may be able to make an appointment and go with them to the surgery, if they want you to.

If someone is experiencing hallucinations or mania, they may not take in what you are saying. In this case, they will need immediate medical help. If an employee is disturbing others and refuses to accept help, seek advice from:

  • your occupational health provider
  • the person’s GP
  • the NHS – call 111or call an ambulance.

Managing a person with an ongoing illness

Most people who have ongoing mental health problems continue to work successfully. But when someone needs support, managers can work with them to ensure flexibility to suit their health needs.

People with mental health problems should be treated in exactly the same way as any other member of staff, unless they ask for help or demonstrate clear signs that they need it. It is discriminatory to make assumptions about people’s capabilities, their promotability or the amount of sick leave they may need because of their illness.

Coping strategies

Most people are encouraged to develop a coping strategy as part of their care. This often involves noting signs of a possible relapse and taking pre-emptive action, such as cutting down on work, being careful about drinking alcohol, taking exercise and finding time to relax. It is important you support the employee at this first warning stage. Small, inexpensive adjustments may well prevent a more costly period of illness.

Advance statements

Some people find it useful to draw up an ‘advance statement’ which explains how they want to be treated if they become unwell. The statement can cover practical arrangements such as details of the people who need to be contacted or provided with information.

It might be helpful to draw up an advance statement which relates to the workplace. It could include:

  • signs that indicate the person is becoming unwell;
  • who to contact (perhaps a close relative, care coordinator or GP);
  • what sort of support is helpful and what is not.

If an employee draws up an agreement with you, you should put the statement into practice to maintain trust.

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