How strong and resilient are your staff? How do they cope when the pressure is on at work? Or even when things are ticking along nicely? If your staff are emotionally healthy and happy, then you are lucky because these days it seems mental health illness is on the increase, or arguably, society is getting better at recognising and dealing with mental health concerns. Whichever it is, the stigma surrounding mental health issues certainly needs to be reduced and the workplace is an essential place to start these open discussions.
As an outsourced HR consultant, I find my clients are experiencing increased mental health issues within their employees. Issues I have seen recently include anxiety, grief, depression, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress. But there are many more problems that could be hindering the productivity and mental wellbeing of your staff, and that you, as their employer, have a duty of care to help with.
When people are affected by mental health illness, you may notice:
- Increased sickness absence
- Decrease in work productivity and performance
- Interpersonal problems
- Lots of conversations and tears
- Alcohol and drug issues – self-medicating
- Wider team and management frustrations
What can you do as an employer?
1. Recognise and don’t ignore potential mental health issues
You are probably thinking, “Easier said than done!” But you are not expected to diagnose your employee’s health issues. It is, though, important to be able to recognise changes in behaviour which could indicate your employee may have a mental health issue. Things to look out for include:
- Uncharacteristic behaviour
- Frequently missing work and/or arriving late and leaving early
- Decreased productivity
- Quick tempered
- Blaming others and making excuses for missed deadlines or poor results
- Deterioration of relationship with colleagues
- Lack of concentration
- Poor eating habits
- Increased and longer smoking breaks
2. Show concern for your employees’ welfare
It is important to take action and discuss your concerns. Encourage them to seek medical support. If you have an Employee Assistance Programme in place, gently persuade them to give them a call. Refer them to occupational health to gain an assessment of their capabilities, and advice on any reasonable adjustments you may need to consider. Agree a plan to review your employee’s performance and make sure you document the meeting.
3. Ensure you know your obligations as the employer
Check the latest legislation and case law, as well as the practicalities around discrimination and the accommodation of disabilities. All this affects the obligations of the employer when dealing with mental health issues in the workplace. There are also requirements to prevent bullying and harassment at work, so ensure you have a good policy in place and investigate complaints promptly.
4. Train your employees and managers
Train your managers to spot changes in behaviour that may signal there is a mental health issue. Managers also need to be aware of the steps they must take when handling the employee – sensitivity and confidentiality are key.
Arrange sessions for your employees to ensure they are knowledgeable about mental illness, and foster an open environment that encourages discussion to prevent it becoming a taboo subject. This is particularly important as there is still a lot of misunderstanding and shame surrounding mental illness, which needs to end.
In the same way that you have trained First Aiders for physical injuries, consider training one or two of your employees to become a Mental Health First Aider, which gives reassurance to your employees that you take mental illness seriously and may prevent a situation becoming more serious.
5. Communicate with affected employees
It’s crucial that you don’t ignore any potential mental health issues that are brought to your attention. Always honour the privacy of your employee, and keep medical information confidential. Sometimes it helps if colleagues are aware of any issues, but always ensure you discuss and agree with the affected employee any communication that may need to be made prior to sending it out.
6. Prevention of mental health problems
A working environment that is relaxed and open tends to be a healthier, more productive place. So try to ensure you have a workplace culture where employees feel valued, are treated with respect, and have a good work-life balance – all this will help reduce stress and burnout.
Also, as an employer, you have an obligation to ensure the workplace is free from bullying, harassment and discrimination. Anything of this nature should be dealt with quickly.
7. Resources for help
If you find dealing with mental health issues in the workplace overwhelming, ask for help! You can get support from an HR Consultant who has had experience in this area. Also, mental health charities such as Mind run great training courses for managers and employees. Time to Change also offers support for employers.