Mental health at work; The 21st of September is the start of autumn here in the northern hemisphere. For many people, it’s a good time of year – a run up to Christmas with autumn, pumpkin spice, golden leaves and cosy clothes. For many, many people, however, it’s a time of year where their mental health gets worse, and people don’t want to talk about it. Depression can come in or get worse over winter months, with conditions like SAD and variations of bipolar disorder that come with seasonality. Seasonal Affective Disorder affects about 3% of the population – so it’s possible one of your employees might struggle more over the winter months. More broadly, 1 in 6 workers are currently dealing with a mental health problem.
Given those facts, what can you do to support employees with mental health disorders?
1. Know the legislation
Employers have a ‘duty of care’ to their employees. That means that you should do what is reasonable to support an employee’s health, safety and general welfare. Mental health falls under this bracket – you have a duty to help support your employee when they’re struggling.
Mental illnesses also count as disabilities so long as 1), it has a ‘substantial adverse effect’, 2), it does or is expected to last 12 months, and 3), it effects their ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. Therefore, you can face litigation for disability discrimination on the grounds of someone’s mental health disorder.
In a practical sense, this means that you should attempt, as much as is reasonably practical, to make adjustments. You also should not avoid giving them promotions, raises, or other benefits because of their disability, harass them, or take part in any other behaviour that would count as discrimination (or allow your employees to do the same.)
Some adjustments you could make include giving the employee longer rest breaks or working with them to manage their workload. You might also consult an occupational health service or a mental health service on how to support your employee.
2. Intervene early on warning signs
Keep an eye open for issues and bring them up early. It’s important for line managers to get to know their employees to understand them a bit better and keep an eye on any changes in behaviour that might indicate an employee is struggling with mental health problems.
Here is an extensive but not exhaustive list of things to keep an eye open for;
- Absenteeism – taking lots of time off.
- Presenteeism – not taking time off, but clearly being unwell.
- Fatigue or tiredness
- Visible tension
- Twitchiness or inability to sit still
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty taking information in
- Loss of humour or other changes in personality
- A sense of resignation
- Irritability or problems with anger
- Euphoria with no apparent cause
- Lateness, early leaving or extended breaks
- Working for long hours
- Uncharacteristic or increase of carelessness
- Apparent over-reactions
- Constantly feeling cold
- Slow or rapid speech
Nothing on this list is limited to mental health, so it’s important not to make assumptions. But if you do notice any of this behaviour, it’s a warning sign you should follow up on.
3. Break the stigma around mental health
According to Mind, the mental health charity, 1 in 5 employees felt they couldn’t talk to their manager about their issues, and over half hadn’t told their employer they were struggling with a mental health condition. There is still a massive stigma problem in the UK about mental health, and employers can help to break that stigma in many ways.
One way is to make policy changes that call out mental health, such as putting into employee handbooks that it will be as treated as seriously as physical health problems. You could even implement a full mental health strategy with your HR department. One-to-ones, regular check-ups, and other policies to open a dialogue can go a long way towards helping make mental health more approachable as a subject.
You could also provide training to your managers to help them help support the staff they’re managing. People don’t come into a management job knowing exactly how to manage another employee’s mental health – they need to be taught how to do it. Being friendly, open, and approachable is a skill that needs developing like any other and giving mental health training is one way you can encourage it in your management team.
4. Offer flexibility at work
Sometimes, a little adjustment to an employee’s workspace or schedule can make huge differences to their mental health. Seasonal Affective Disorder is caused by low levels of sunlight, typically reducing vitamin-D production by the skin. The obvious adjustment that can be made to help is to help the employee get more sunlight, by moving them close to a south-facing window that gets a lot of light or letting them use lightboxes (which mimic the amount of sunlight a person would get). You could also adjust their hours so they get a little more sunlight before it goes dark or first thing in the morning.
You can also provide them with more support and guidance whilst they’re struggling. Resilience training, provision of self-help materials, and ensuring managers are making regular check-ins are some ways you can help. Quiet break-out rooms and time-out spaces can help people take stock when they’re feeling overwhelmed, as can making adjustments to their workspace like providing a divider or moving them somewhere quieter, or even letting them work more from home.
You could also consider a re-onboarding and back-to-work process for people who have spent time off because of mental health issues – it can be daunting to come back to a full schedule and full workload after taking time off to care for your mental health, so let your employee come back into work more gradually. You should also make sure they’re making plenty of use of their annual leave to give themselves plenty of breaks.
Whatever their problems, making little adjustments to the workspace can help someone with a mental health condition more than you might think.
An open line of communication can also make a world of difference to employee mental health. It has to go both ways – employees will only be open if they feel comfortable and safe to do so, and so it has to start with the management team being open about mental health.
They can do this by initiating private check-ins and asking questions about how their employees are doing beyond asking how they are – ask if their workloads are comfortable, whether they’re having any difficulties outside of work, noting when they’ve appeared upset or under pressure, and reassuring them it’s okay if they are having issues because you just want to support them. Sometimes, people need more detailed questions to get them to open up. We’ve all met someone who’s replied to ‘how are you?’ with ‘I’m fine!’, then later divulged some difficulties later on when the conversation moves on!
CIPD makes some suggestions for things you can ask;
- How are you doing at the moment?
- You seem to be a bit down/upset/under pressure/frustrated/angry. Is everything okay?
- I’ve noticed you’ve been arriving late recently and I wondered if you’re okay?
- I’ve noticed the reports are late when they usually are not. Is everything okay?
- Is there anything I can do to help?
- What would you like to happen? How?
- What support do you think might help?
- Have you spoken to your GP or looked for help anywhere else?
These can be good jumping off points for bringing up someone’s mental health issues.
6. Proactively share mental health resources
Regularly and proactively sharing mental health resources can also help to relieve some of the stigma and help employees get help they might have otherwise avoided. It can also give them some information and guidance on how to approach you about their issues. We’ve added some at the end of this blogpost to get you started, but you should seek out up-to-date advice and guidance whenever you do policy reviews. Remind your employees they exist regularly, particularly in the wake of difficult events like the coronavirus pandemic.
Be open, up-front, honest, and proactive about mental health, and willing to be flexible and make adjustments. You should also be aware of the warning signs for mental health issues, and ready to have delicate conversations with people when they’re struggling. People struggling often don’t feel confident or comfortable coming into discussions about their mental health cold, so a little preparation and training can go a long way to helping support your employees through difficult periods.
What do you think?
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Here to Help
HR and You offer mental health support as a bolt-on to any of our retained services. If you need help implementing mental health policies into your workplace, feel free to give us a call to ask about the services we could offer.
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