Mental Health is among the most challenging workplace issues for businesses. Technological developments and expectations of 24/7 availability seem to be causing increasing levels of workplace stress. The financial costs are considerable: 91 million days are believed to be lost each year to mental health conditions. Nearly half of all long-term absences are believed to be due to mental health conditions and the annual cost to business is estimated at a staggering £30 billion.
One of the particular challenges for employers is that staff may not disclose mental health conditions due to perceived stigma. A survey by Canada Life Insurance suggested that around half of employees with mental health conditions would not disclose it to their employer. And they may be right to be wary: a survey by insurer Aon suggested that 7 in 10 managers don’t think stress, depression or anxiety are valid reasons for absence.
Brushing mental health issues under the carpet can, however, have unwelcome consequences for businesses. Depressed or anxious staff may be more likely to make errors or under-perform. There is also the risk of personal injury claims if an employer fails to take steps to prevent foreseeable psychiatric injury caused or contributed to by the work environment. These risks are much more difficult to manage if staff don’t feel comfortable disclosing any conditions or seeking help. So there are sound financial, legal and practical reasons to try to make cultural changes.
We suggest that businesses consider implementing a formal policy which emphasises that the business takes mental health conditions as seriously as physical conditions, offers support (and makes reasonable adjustments required under the Equality Act) for staff with mental health conditions, and offers referrals to confidential counselling and support services. You cannot force staff to disclose conditions, but emphasising the support available may improve staff performance and retention and could also help the business to defend any disability discrimination or personal injury claims linked to mental health conditions.
Of course, having such a policy is no good if you don’t act on it. The written policy needs to be accompanied by training for managers and to have senior management buy-in and support.
Although managers are not there to cure your employees, appropriate training may help them to spot warning signs and act on early signs of stress or anxiety. Managers should not be intrusive, but if they spot warning signs, it is sensible for them to have an informal discussion with the employee and give them an opportunity to discuss what is wrong and what support may be available. This requires good relationships between managers and their reports. Managers should not try to force the issue, but having such informal discussions may put the business in a better position if it is required to take formal action later.
Return to work meetings after sickness absence are a natural opportunity for such discussions to take place. The manager can ask about the reasons for the absence and what if any steps can be taken to address the issues. This may include adjustments to workload or addressing work relationship issues such as bullying.
Recent ACAS guidance on mental health suggests that where an employee has disclosed they are suffering from a mental health condition and that this is being exacerbated by aspects of their working environment, their manager should hold regular review meetings with them. Again, this is a common sense approach which could stand the business in good stead in the event of a claim.
There is no silver bullet for dealing with poor mental health at work, but businesses that encourage openness and try to de-stigmatise this increasingly common problem will reap dividends.