Mental health is becoming increasingly important in the workplace. Once thought of as something that happened to an unfortunate few, we now know that it is incredibly common: at least 1 in 4 people now experience a mental health problem at some point in their life.
In this age of austerity and focus on the bottom line can organisations really afford to ignore mental health in the workplace?
A steep rise in work-related depression has been fuelled by downsizing firms leaving fewer people doing more work, experts have claimed. A world away from the trivial rigours of the “Monday blues”, law firms, charities and politicians suggest the worst recession since World War II fuelled a mental health crisis as employees left behind after mass redundancies buckled under heavier workloads.
When people feel under pressure at work it can lead to stress and anxiety. A short period of stress on its own is not likely to be considered a disability under law, but prolonged stress can become more serious and make existing mental health problems worse. It is in the best interests of employers and employees to avoid this situation, and create mentally healthy workplaces that are free from discrimination where well-being is a priority.
In practice, it can be hard to distinguish when ‘stress’ turns into a ‘mental health problem’ and when existing mental health problems become exaggerated by stress at work. Many of the symptoms are similar to those that people experience when they are under considerable pressure; the key differences are in the severity and duration of the symptoms and the impact they have on someone’s everyday life.
Smaller employers are also less likely to have a HR specialist on the payroll, so they need to become savvier about mental health issues themselves.
- First and foremost, prevention is the key – whether that is:
- Primary prevention (promoting a healthy workforce),
- Secondary prevention (early intervention at the first signs of distress) or
- Tertiary prevention – helping employees whose mental health concerns have already become very evident.
So, how do we do this?
Develop a culture of openness and awareness
The biggest barrier to managing stress and other mental health issues in the workplace is the reluctance of staff to discuss these issues – in fact, 67% of people with mental health problems do not tell their employer because they worry about the reaction.
However, if employees are not forthcoming, problems may only come to light later on when more serious interventions are necessary.
By creating a culture of openness and awareness of mental health issues, employers can reduce stigma, make employees feel better supported and encourage them to raise issues and concerns early before they develop into something more serious.
Upskill managers to offer support in the workplace
Managerial staff in small businesses are often juggling a variety of tasks, as well as having the responsibility of making sure employees are happy and healthy.
It can be a challenge to devote enough time towards supporting employee wellbeing when urgent factors such as productivity targets might seem more pressing.
By investing in training, employers can help managers to recognise the early signs, and understand what adjustments someone with a mental health condition might need.
In particular, business owners should remember not to penalise managers who have reduced productivity as a result of making adjustments for that employee, as their support will pay off in the long term.
Openly talk about mental health with your staff
If an employee does develop a mental health issue, it’s important to maintain an open and meaningful dialogue. Employers can often feel reluctant to talk about these issues for fear of doing or saying the wrong thing, but it’s important to know what support is needed.
Making sure there is a constant dialogue between the employee and line manager will allow employers to strike the right balance between helping the employee to still feel productive and valued, without feeling overloaded.
Provide tangible support through your employee benefits package
Employers can provide tangible support for staff through their employee benefits package. Employee assistance programmes, can help employees manage mental health conditions alongside work, whilst also offering preventative measures such as counselling to help prevent problems from becoming more serious.
If mental health issues do mean someone has to go on sick leave for 6 months or more, benefits like income protection will also provide staff with a regular replacement income. Vocational rehabilitation services are also important as they support employees’ return to work when they are ready.
A vocational rehabilitation consultant works with the employee and employer to develop a tailored and flexible plan that gradually eases the employee back into the workplace.
This is especially useful for a smaller business which often won’t have a dedicated HR department or OH service.
With mental health fast rising up the agenda, it’s important that employers understand the issues and are prepared for them – both in terms of offering the right support to staff and protecting their businesses from the potential impact.
With every workplace almost certain to be affected at one time or another, now is the time for SMEs to evaluate their own policies and procedures to tackle the mental health challenge.
Whilst managers are not expected to diagnose mental health problems within their workforce, it may be helpful to be able to recognise potential early signs of distress within your staff.
However, it is important to note that if one or more of these signs are observed, this does not automatically mean the employee has a mental health problem – it could be a sign of another health issue or something else entirely. Always take care not to make assumptions or listen to third party gossip and to talk to the person directly.
Finding a workplace adequate mental health policy and level of understanding is a lottery but the presence of an HR department can be beneficial. However, major barriers remain in the way of people with mental health conditions seeking employment.
Despite increased awareness 72% of workplaces still have no formal mental health policy.
Mind – For better mental health
We provide advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem. We campaign to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding.
Acas provides free and impartial information and advice to employers and employees on all aspects of workplace relations and employment law. We support good relationships between employers and employees which underpin business. But when things go wrong they can also help by providing conciliation to help resolve workplace problems. Acas also provide good value, high quality training and tailored advice to employers.
The Shaw Trust – Ability to work
Mental ill health in the workplace is a bigger issue than many imagine and it’s an area that Shaw Trust is determined to help employers be better able to support their staff.
Shaw Trust’s vision is a society where every disabled and disadvantaged person has a right to work.