It’s time to tackle mental health in the workplace

It’s time to tackle mental health in the workplace

Mental health in the workplace – important issues for HR professionals and managers

It will not be news to readers that the prevalence and effects of mental ill-health in the workplace are becoming issues of increasing concern for all organisations. There is an enormous economic cost. The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development places the cost at £70 billion a year, including loss in productivity, costs to the NHS, and benefits. There are also legal and, not least, moral imperatives that are driving business leaders to begin to take action towards tackling this issue.

Business in the Community (BitC) launched a three-year research programme last year into mental health at work, and have just reported on findings from a national survey (available here). The report shows that 3 out of 4 employees said that they had experienced symptoms of mental ill-health at some time. BitC remind employers that they have a duty of care towards employees’ mental health equal to that owed in relation to their physical well-being. They urge employers to bring awareness and action on mental health to the same level as that for physical well-being and safety. In a Foreword to the report, Professor Dame Carol Black emphasises the need for training to prevent mental illness and to build resilience, to enable HR professionals and line managers to deal with cases of mental ill-health appropriately and with confidence.

Research findings

Employees:

  • 77% have experienced poor mental health
  • 29% have been diagnosed with a mental health condition
  • 62% attribute their mental ill-health to the workplace or see it as a contributing factor

Managers:

  • 76% say they believe employee mental health is their responsibility
  • 22% feel they have had sufficient training
  • 49% think basic training in common mental-health conditions would help
  • 38% wanted training in how to talk to employees about mental health

In the absence of appropriate training, the default action is to give the employee time off or to move them to a different job – neither necessarily what the employee wants or needs.

Factors that influence the increase in mental ill-health

The report focuses on the effect of the culture of silence that is still pervasive around this topic:

  • 49% of employees say that they would not discuss their mental health with their manager
  • 86% would hesitate to approach a colleague whom they believe might be suffering with mental ill-health
  • 4% would ask HR for help
  • 2% have done so

(but 23% of managers have approached HR for help to support a vulnerable member of their team, so it is important for HR to develop knowledge and awareness in this area).

Managers feel most confident identifying and responding to stress, but 32% said they had not had adequate training to recognise and deal with different and perhaps more complex conditions such as depression, panic attacks, bipolar disorder, etc.

BitC emphasises that there appears to be a gap between what organisations are committed to providing and what employees receive. But this is not due to unwillingness or lack of care on the part of HR teams or managers. Rather, it is about lack of knowledge, ability and confidence. Unsurprising, given the complex skills and knowledge required to tackle the necessary personal communication, and balance an individual’s needs with those of the team and/or organisation.

What should we all be doing about this?

The report recommends that HR professionals and line managers alike address the challenge by:

  • breaking the barriers created by stigma and fear
  • talking about mental health at work and asking employees about their mental health experiences
  • making sure that lines of communication are open where people wish to report mental health problems – and that the response is non-judgemental and non-threatening
  • developing skills and understanding, training so that HR teams and managers have the knowledge and skills they need to tackle mental health issues more appropriately and confidently.

This will lead to the confidence to take action in a timely and effective manner on an individual basis, and also in addressing aspects of the working environment that could lead to employees suffering with mental ill-health – just as you would address anything in the workplace that could put an employee’s physical well-being at risk. It is crucial to raise awareness of mental health issues and ensure that staff know about the support that is available to them and how to gain access to that support.

One of the key questions we are asked is how to identify different mental health conditions. To begin with, we always say that one of the most reliable signs that someone may be experiencing mental health problems is a change in their behaviour or demeanour – so it is important to get to know your staff, how they usually present and operate, and keep an eye out for particularly vulnerable members of staff or, as ACAS puts it, set up a ‘watching brief’.

Knowledge leads to confidence – how’s yours?

Leaders do not fail to provide effective support because they do not care or feel they are responsible. Most often it is because they lack the skills or are not clear regarding their specific responsibilities, and this undermines their confidence. In particular, this can be in relation to legal issues. 9% of cases of mental ill health has led to disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal, and the BiTC report expresses concern that this may indicate instances of illegal employment practice.

In relation to the law regarding this area, the questions we are most often asked are:

  • Does a job applicant have to disclose a previous mental illness?
  • What adjustments can be suggested for an employee with a mental illness?
  • How can an employer monitor whether an employee might be under stress?
  • What should an employer do when concerned that an employee may self-harm or even commit suicide?
  • When is an employer legally liable for his employee’s stress-related illness?
  • Do you know the answers to these questions?

If you’re wondering what more you should be doing in this area, have a look at the agenda for our 13 December workshop, Mental health in the workplace: key issues for HR professionals. It’s led by Adrienne Green (a coach, consultant and trainer who practised for many years as a psychotherapist and psychotherapy supervisor within both private and NHS mental health care services) and Professor Diana Kloss MBE, a member of the Board of the National School of Occupational Health, a barrister and author of Occupational Health Law.

And look out for the next BitC report, to be published on 10 October on their website.

Adrienne Green, associate consultant, Maximum HR.

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