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Helping employees deal with mental ill health



Many employers encounter instances of ill health on a regular basis. Many are happy to deal with physical injuries, diseases and infirmities but fewer are confident to tackle the issues surrounding mental health.


rradar solicitor Heather Jefferson examines the issue and highlights ten action points that can make handling mental health issues a lot easier.


What should be done?


How should employers deal with incidents of mental ill health when they arise, to ensure that they handle matters in such a way that claims of discrimination are avoided and the well-being of both the employee and the entire workplace are protected?


1. The role of a manager


If an organisation wants to concentrate on improving staff wellbeing and performance, managers represent a very important resource.


The role of the manager in supporting good mental health will include:


  • Being available and providing an environment in which staff know they can talk to their manager if they experience mental health problems.

  • Matching the way they manage their employees to the needs of each staff member. This should become apparent over time but in case guidance is needed, HR can provide material to help.

  • Monitoring the level of work that each member of staff is handling – setting realistic and achievable targets and ensuring that staff are able to prioritise their work can help immensely

  • Establish regular one-to-one meetings and assessment to identify how projects are progressing, what challenges are ahead and the levels of support that may be needed to achieve goals and avoid excessive levels of stress.


2. Spot the signs of mental ill health


As with most other aspects of ill health, the earlier that a mental health problem can be identified, the easier it is to treat. With plenty of notice, managers can put support plans into place that can make a big difference to the way that employees with mental health issues respond and recover.


Whilst it’s important not to make assumptions based on fragmentary evidence, small signs can nevertheless give valuable clues that something is amiss.


Signs that mental ill health may be an issue could include:


  • changes in behaviour and mood;

  • differences in the way that they interact with colleagues;

  • changes in the standard of their work or focus on tasks;

  • appearing tired, anxious or withdrawn;

  • reduced interest in tasks they previously enjoyed;

  • changes in appetite and/or increase in smoking and drinking;

  • increase in sickness absence and/or turning up late to work.


It’s important to bear in mind that some instances of mental ill health won’t produce obvious symptoms. Managers need to get into the habit of talking to team members about their worries and concerns and create an environment where employees feel it’s all right to be honest about their state of mind.


3. Encourage staff to develop their own Wellness Action Plans


If employees have experienced mental health issues in the past, they are usually the best-placed to develop a plan to handle recurrences of those issues. Working with their manager, they can devise an Action Plan that the manager can use to identify:

  • aspects of work that can trigger recurrences of mental ill health;

  • symptoms and early warning signs that can enable the employee’s mental health to be managed proactively;

  • the effect that mental ill health may have on the employee’s performance;

  • the kinds of support that they will need from their manager in order to manage their mental health.


4. Talking to a team member who may be experiencing mental ill health


As we have already noted, many managers are uncomfortable broaching the topic of mental ill health and, human nature being what it is, they may be tempted to ignore the matter and hope it goes away.


This is massively counter-productive and can lead to the mental ill health becoming worse, with all the negative implications for both the employee and the workplace that this brings.

If a manager has any suspicion that a team member may be having problems with mental ill health issues, they should set up a meeting as soon as they can to discuss matters with the employee in question. The meeting needs to be conducted in private and in a way that reassures the employee that their concerns will be taken both seriously and positively.


However, the manager needs to be mindful of the fact that although they have suspicions about the employee’s mental health, they should not jump to conclusions about the outcome of the meeting. They should not specifically address or suggest mental health problems in such a meeting unless the employee brings up the matter.


The converse is also a possibility; an employee may take the initiative about mental ill health issues and request a meeting with their manager. This can be very challenging for both the employee (who might worry about how their approach will be received) and the manager (who may feel uncomfortable about dealing with such an approach) but there are several things that need to be covered when such a situation arises:


  • The conversation should be held in a private space so that the employee and manager can speak freely without fear of disturbance or other team members overhearing.

  • The manager should thank the team member for taking the initiative, making it clear that a discussion on mental health issues is a positive development.

  • No time limit should be put on the meeting; it can take a while for the employee to open up and the truncation of discussion just when progress is starting to be made can be very frustrating.

  • The focus of the meeting needs to be on what the employee is saying, rather than what the manager wants to hear.

  • The manager should be open-minded about what they’re being told and try to identify the cause of the issue, which will better enable potential solutions to be explored.

  • For the employee, the discussion will be intensely personal and can take unexpected turns as they start to open up. The manager needs to be prepared for whatever might arise.

  • Although it may be possible to reach a mutually satisfactory conclusion in one meeting, it’s not always the case and the manager should not be afraid to adjourn the meeting if they need to consider what they’ve been told before coming to a decision about what action should be taken.


5. Managing a team member who may feel unable to talk


Despite the opportunity to discuss their mental health issues, not all employees feel able or willing to discuss these matters. The worst thing a manager can do in such circumstances is put pressure on them to open up. As mentioned above, creating an environment in which employees feel that they can discuss their mental ill health means that they are far more likely to make the approach.


If the manager has noticed signs that give cause for concern and the employee has not broached the subject, they should discreetly monitor the situation. Further indications that there is a problem should prompt a request for guidance and/or assistance from HR, senior management or a member of the Occupational Health team.


6. Supporting a team member during periods of mental ill health


Mental ill health does not always fall under the definition of disability in legislation such as the Equality Act 2010. The government has published guidance on this https://www.gov.uk/when-mental-health-condition-becomes-disability


However, if it does amount to a disability, the organisation needs to consider making what are known as ‘reasonable adjustments’ to let the employee perform their role without being at a disadvantage compared to team members who don’t have that disability.


Regardless of whether the employee’s mental ill health is counted as a disability or not, it is still a good idea to put changes into place that will let the employee do their job to the best of their abilities.


These changes don’t have to be big ones; an extra work break or assistance in prioritising their workload are examples of the level that will help to reduce pressure on their mental health.


It’s important that these changes aren’t just imposed by well-meaning managers but happen as the result of discussion and agreement between manager and employee. The employee is more likely to be able to identify the adjustments they require to do their job. The input of Occupational Health can also pay dividends.


When the employee and manager have discussed the adjustment and agreed it, a system of monitoring should be put in place to ensure that it’s working. If it doesn’t produce results, it should be adjusted once more.


7. Supporting the rest of your team


If a team member does suffer from mental illness, they may not want their manager to discuss such issues with their colleagues/team members. If this is the case, there should be an attempt to keep this confidential where possible.


If however, they are happy that their colleagues are made aware of what has happened, it’s important to bear in mind that this will have a significant effect on the rest of the team.


Some may be uncomfortable knowing what’s happening to their colleague; others may worry that they might have inadvertently contributed to what has happened.


The manager should extend support to the other members of the team. A personal presence and regular catch-up meetings can go a long way to reassuring the whole team at what can be a very difficult time.


Not all organisations have support services such as mental health first aiders or employee assistance programmes but if they’re available, managers should encourage staff to make use of them.


8. Managing absence related to mental ill health


In many instances, an employee’s mental ill health issues can be managed in the workplace, but there are some occasions where they’ll have to be absent from work, sometimes for an extended period of time.


The reasons for this are manifold: they may be too ill to work, or they are taking medication that means they can’t work safely – perhaps they operate machinery or drive for their job.


Whilst employees are away from the workplace, the manager can support them by following these recommendations:


  • Come to an agreement about contact arrangements – when and how often contact will be made

  • Ensure that all contact and liaison with the employee is done in a positive, professional and supportive manner

  • Find out how the employee would like their team mates updated about their situation and progress.

  • Avoid putting pressure on the employee to return to work before they feel ready to do so. To make a return to work easier for the employee, try to arrange a phased return so that they don’t feel overloaded.

  • Enlist the help of Occupational Health so that the employee can be supported fully when they return to work.


Without contact, the absent employee can feel isolated and unappreciated; this can make any form of return to work much harder to organise. The choice of venue for employee-manager contact is also important – the workplace is not a good idea, as it may cause more problems for the employee, whilst their home environment is often seen as a refuge and they may be reluctant to conduct work-related activity in it. A neutral venue is often the best choice.


If the employee requests that they should have no contact with their manager, they should be told that some form of contact is essential if the employee’s progress is to be monitored. However, it may be that the manager has been part of the problem that caused the absence and it might be a better idea in this instance to arrange channels of contact with another manager or the HR department.


9. Helping a team member return to work

The return to work can often be the most important stage of mental ill health management; it needs to be done right in order that the employee feels supported and there is no recurrence of their problems. The manager should outline what will be expected of them on their return, in a way that doesn’t produce more stress for them.


Once the employee returns to the workplace, the manager needs to hold a return-to-work interview. This is a good way for the manager to officially welcome them back into the workplace. This can act as a watershed and a positive step forward.


It’s also a chance for the manager to assess whether the employee is well enough to return. They might say that they are, but it’s not always the case and a spot assessment, in co-ordination with Occupational Health, can confirm their fitness for work.


During the return-to-work interview, the employee can catch up with any developments and news that might have taken place in their absence. This can generate a feeling of inclusivity and enable them to re-integrate more quickly.


The employee can use the interview to raise any worries that they might have about their return to work. The manager can then assuage them.


Finally, the manager can confirm the employee’s working arrangements, as well as the adjustments that may have been put in place to ensure their job does not contribute to mental ill health issues in future.


10. Approaching potential disciplinary or capability matters


With support and care, most employees who experience an episode of mental ill health will make a full recovery and return to the workplace.


Unfortunately, there are times when, even with the necessary adjustments in place, the employee’s performance will give further cause for concern. If this happens, what should the manager do?


The first thing for them to consider is whether the fresh problems mean that additional adjustments or more support are needed to improve performance. It could also be the case that a change in duties or role could be the answer.


If it turns out that the manager needs to take further action, they will need to follow the disciplinary or capability procedures laid out in their company’s handbook. Employers need to assess which procedure to use to ensure they do not fall foul of a claim. If they are unsure, they should contact rradarstation to get advice.


rradarstation


Employers need to seek legal advice if they are in any doubt about how to deal with mental health issues amongst the workforce. It’s better to be safe than sorry, particularly since there’s no cap on the level of compensation that can be awarded in cases of discrimination.


rradarstation is a resource available through the AXA MLP where policyholders can access rradar’s legal advisory team over the phone or by email and web portal that provides over 1,000 articles, step by step guidance sheets, forms, sample letters and templates to download relating to disciplinary and capability procedures, amongst other things.