It’s World Mental Health Day and this year, the theme is mental health in the workplace. So, how can employers best tackle the issues?
Three in five employees have experienced mental health issues in the past year because of work, according to a new study. It’s easy to see why: exhausting commutes, long working hours, excessive workloads and ‘always on’ workplace culture and difficult relationships with managers and colleagues can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression.
Here, employment solicitors and mental health experts share advice on how employers can make the workplace a happier, healthier place to be.
“We need emotional literacy at work,” says Nicola Banning, a counsellor who specialises in mental health at work and a member of the BACP Workplace Executive Committee. “Leaders and managers have a big influence on how people deal with mental health issues at work. So, providing training to managers and leaders so they have an understanding of what makes people tick and what helps people work well is vital.”
Some employers roll out well-being initiatives – from mindfulness to Mental Health First Aiders – which can kick-start conversations. Others offer counselling sessions, invite outside speakers and encourage managers to raise the issue at appraisals and reviews.
Well-supported discussions can be vital says David Ward, Associate at Blacks LLP: “As someone who has struggled/struggles with my own mental health at times, my top tip for employers looking to ensure the mental well-being of their staff is to encourage discussion wherever possible.
“Talking about mental health is key to addressing these issues and it is those who suffer in silence, fearing stigma, damage to their reputation and other unlikely consequences that are likely to see their mental health decline.
“I would encourage my staff to talk to each-other or to me about this, leave the door open or even ask for a volunteer or volunteers, who understand these struggles, to lend an ear to anyone who wants to talk.”
Allowing employees some flexibility about where and when they work can be helpful. Rachel Farr, Senior Professional Support Lawyer at Taylor Wessing, for example, sometimes works from home, which means skipping a two-hour commute.
She says: “I can take my children to school, go for a run and then log in to my computer to work at the same time I would have arrived in the office, but feeling energised rather than stressed before my day has even begun.”
Make reasonable adjustments
“For employees suffering from mental health concerns there can still be a sense that stigma is attached to it says Bettina Bender, a Partner at CM Murray. “And that their employer will see it as the end of road for the employment relationship.”
Unfortunately, while some employers are supportive, 15% of employees face dismissal, disciplinary action or demotion after disclosing a mental health issue at work, according to a recent study by Business in the Community.
Under the Equality Act an employee suffering from a disability is protected against acts of discrimination (including dismissal) and an employer has to take reasonable steps to make adjustments to the employee’s role, says Bender.
“However, the obligation on an employer to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate an employee’s mental health only kicks in if the employer knows or could reasonably to be expected to know, about their illness,” says Karen Baxter, Partner at Lewis Silkin LLP.
“As mental health conditions are usually hidden, employers rely on staff telling them about their health and discussing any problems it causes at work”, she adds, which is why it can helpful to open up conversations, which allow this.
Don’t wait for employees to breakdown
Everyone has mental health: it’s not just those who are burning out or suffering panic attacks or depression that need to think about the issues.
“Don’t leave it until employees are struggling with mental health issues at work,” says David Regan, senior associate at Squire Patton Boggs. “If you help train employees to learn strategies to help them deal with pressure while they are healthy and productive, this could help them later on, at work and in life.”