Looking after Mental Health in the Workplace

Over recent years there has been growing discussion of mental health issues. This has led to a concerted effort to move away from the traditional British ‘stiff upper lip’ method of handling personal issues, and quite rightly so. According to MIND, the mental health charity, 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year.

This is a staggering figure and shows that mental health discussions should not continue to be a taboo subject. Many people do not raise their mental health issues for fear of being seen as ‘weak’ or unable to cope with the pressures that come with certain roles, seniority or even certain industries. However, employees and employers can no longer bury their head in the sand over this topic. Gradually, the government is taking steps to broaden discussion on this point. In fact, Prime Minister Theresa May announced only last month a comprehensive package of measures to transform mental health support in schools, workplaces and communities.

There is also a growing trend of business driving discussion on this topic. Given the impact mental health in the workplace can have on business, this is unsurprising. According to some figures, 127 million hours were lost in 2015 due to mental health related absences; this is the equivalent of 75,000 people each having a whole year off work. This figure is also on the rise as the number of days lost each year is increasing by 25%. In total, the costs of failing to cope with mental health issues amount to approximately 4.5% of the UK’s GDP.

The impact on businesses is not simply absenteeism. Mental health issues in the workplace have a huge adverse effect on performance, and thus profitability, in numerous ways. Workers can experience: difficulty concentrating; taking longer to perform tasks; putting off challenging work and/or making difficult decisions; less patience with colleagues and clients leading to more conflicts in the workplace; difficulty learning new tasks; and relying more on colleagues to perform their tasks.

The above effects are also being felt increasingly by entrepreneurs. With the huge rise in the number of new companies being set up each year (a record 60 every hour in 2016), it is vital that these individuals consider their own mental health as well as those of any future hires. Researchers at the University of California found that 49% of entrepreneurs surveyed were dealing with mental illness and about one third were struggling with two or more mental illnesses.

Therefore, it is in the interests of not only employers, but also individuals looking after their own mental health, to recognise the signs of mental health issues in the workplace and take effective measures to prevent or alleviate them. Such possible signs can include issues with:

  • Work performance – declining or inconsistent performance, uncharacteristic errors, indecision, loss of control over work, loss of motivation or commitment;
  • Withdrawal – absenteeism, arriving at work late, reduced social contact, resigned attitude, becoming introverted, taking unofficial time off;
  • Regression – crying, uncharacteristic loss of confidence, arguments, undue sensitivity or overreaction, irrationality or moodiness; and
  • Aggressive behaviour – bullying or harassment, poor relations with colleagues, outbursts of temper, malicious gossip or undue criticism.

In order to effectively address such issues in the workplace, mental health strategies should consider prevention, intervention and protection:

  • Prevention – there is no point creating a mental health policy without developing a culture that encourages workers to be aware of issues and to be open about, and supportive of, such issues. Communication of these policies to staff and regular training for managers is required to foster a truly supportive environment. It is about putting principles into practice to create this culture – for example, encouraging staff to take regular breaks, considering workloads and whether undue expectations are being placed on staff, etc.
  • Intervention – should issues arise, it is important to have both internal support, including guidance on managing stress, peer-to-peer support systems or even an informal HR drop-in session, as well as outside support. Whilst larger companies may have employee assistance programmes offering services such as counselling, smaller companies can use external third party support systems such as the Government’s Fit to Work scheme, occupational health and mental health charities. Outside support is especially vital for entrepreneurs who may not necessarily have the internal support network of colleagues, line managers and HR professionals. Communication of these policies and regular conversations with staff during long-term absences are also fundamental to ensuring they do not feel disengaged from the workplace;
  • Protection – one of the most efficient ways of managing an individual’s return to work is to create and tailor a return-to-work plan to ease them back into the workplace and ensure they have support and any necessary adjustments to their working practices. However, a mere plan will not protect the individual long-term; ongoing and meaningful dialogue should be maintained to prevent problems from recurring.

Whilst every situation and individual is unique, the above suggestions should be borne in mind where mental health issues arise in the workplace. By adopting variations of the options set out above, businesses can invoke a change in attitude towards mental health, moving it away from a taboo topic into one that is recognised, accepted and actively managed.

Samantha Prosser is an Associate at leading employment law firm BDBF. Should you wish to speak to us about this topic, please call us on 020 3828 0350.