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Mental health and the workplace

World Mental Health Day takes place on 10 October 2015 and with this in mind it is a good opportunity for employers to open up a conversation about mental health in the workplace and to get people talking about what is still a relatively taboo subject.

Mental health is the mental and emotional state in which we are able to cope with the normal stresses of everyday life. Everyone has mental health whether it is positive or negative and given the 24 hour world we live in, where we spend more time working than we do with our friends and family, it is no surprise that the workplace can often be a catalyst for mental health issues.

Failure to address mental health issues can result in long term absence, high levels of sickness and a de-motivated workforce. If we are feeling good about ourselves we often work more productively, interact well with colleagues and make a valuable contribution to our team or workplace. However, with the stigma that is currently attached to mental health, it can often be very difficult to identify the signs of a mental health issue. The Department of Health has estimated that one in four of us will suffer from a mental health problem at some point in our lives and a total of 91 million days are lost to mental health problems every year. With such startling statistics employers cannot afford to be naive to this issue.

The first step in spotting the signs of a mental health issue is for employers and their managers to educate themselves on what to look for. ACAS has produced a guide on promoting positive mental health at work which is a useful starting point and provides realistic scenarios and tips on how to approach individuals suffering from poor mental health. It is also important for employers to be aware of the issues within their own workplace which can impact on the mental health of their team. This can include having an appreciation of your team’s workload, how late people are working and be aware of working relationships within the team.

Often, even when employers identify a mental health issue, it can be challenging to decide on a course of action. A good starting point is to identify the factors which you can control i.e. workload, work variety, work relationships and encouraging an environment of openness and honesty within the team. Should you decide to approach an employee who you consider is suffering from a mental health issue you should consult with your HR team first, to seek appropriate guidance and make sure that all meetings are conducted in a sensitive way.

Although an informal approach is recommended to start with employers should also keep in mind their legal duty to protect their staff and to look out for their general welfare. Most importantly employers should consider the following:

• Mental health issues can sometimes be considered a disability in accordance with the Equality Act 2010. Employers are under a duty to make reasonable adjustments for employees who are suffering from a disability, and a failure to do so can result in a tribunal claim;

• Employers are under a common law duty to take reasonable care of the health and safety of employees in the workplace. This duty can be relied upon in a personal injury claim which can involve stress related injuries;

• Stress can also be caused by the bullying and harassment of employees within the workplace. Employers are under a duty to prevent this type of behaviour.

What practical steps can employers take?

• Monitor individual workloads and take complaints about excessive workloads seriously. Line managers should take personal responsibility for providing the necessary support;

• Hold sessions for employees to assist them in managing stress levels and maintaining a good work life balance;

• Provide training for all employees to spot stressed colleagues;

• Conduct employee surveys to receive “stress feedback” to monitor stress levels of employees;

• Offer a counselling or confidential service to enable employees to relay concerns;

• Implement or update your stress policy so employees know your organisation takes stress seriously and know where to turn if they feel stressed;

• Make reasonable adjustments for those suffering from depression, anxiety or other mental illness;

• Take steps to ensure that the workplace is free from bullying, discrimination, harassment and victimisation. These types of behaviour can cause stress and psychiatric injury. As well as having dignity at work policies employers should actively practice what they preach and demonstrate to employees that these types of behaviour are unacceptable. To minimise the risk of liability employers should provide diversity and inclusivity training and take grievances of this kind seriously.

Other blogs of interest:

The most common mistakes employers make when dealing with workplace stress

Embracing change: Top tips for helping your employees achieve a work-life balance

Managing workplace stress

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Legal news, views, trends and tools for HR Professionals. Stay ahead. Go further