Do HR analysts have the power to support their colleagues’ mental health?

You may not be meeting your employer duty of care if you can’t show how you are looking after staff, says James Holdstock

Maybe you are an HR analyst missing that crucial piece of the puzzle – great at formulas and logic but not writing business cases – or a business partner and HR data scares or excites you. Maybe you are an employee or union rep and you want to know how your members and colleagues are being looked after, or an HR director and you realise that absence owing to mental health is costing your business.

Whatever the case, there's a good reason to care about mental health in the workplace. Employers have a legal duty of care for the safety and wellbeing of their employees. And if an employee is off sick then they are not performing their role. Absence is, of course, directly linked to productivity.

Employees that are not absent pick up the slack. This can ironically lead to stress for them. And sickness absence from mental health issues is growing, and not just the declared levels. In a Time to Change survey 48 per cent of employees said they would not talk to an employer about their mental health, and 95 per cent of those who called in sick with stress gave a different reason.

What HR analysts can do to help  

This is for any business regardless of analytical capability, so I’ve broken the approaches down into scenarios. Hop into the level that best fits your business or skills:

‘We don’t log any sickness absence’

The big problem with this is you may not be meeting your employer duty of care if you can’t show how you are looking after staff. Set up a list of issues and categories obtained from your local or national health services. Record the start date, end date and nature of the sickness by choosing options from the list.

‘We record when people are sick but not the causes’

You record when people are absent and that the reason is sickness absence (as opposed to special leave, toil or jury service). Add the ailment or issue to this process. This will also help you identify health and safety concerns (look up Dr Snow and cholera if you want an example of this).

‘We publish monthly average stats on sickness absence by sickness category’

Averages can hide things. I know of an example where because two departments were combined a health issue wasn’t picked up as it was being averaged out.

Basic reporting should include stats of how many employees, how many days and the frequency of spells, broken down by department, job type, grade/seniority, sickness category (mental health vs coughs and colds, etc). HR can monitor and flag increases in numbers affected or increases in the duration of spells of sickness. 

‘We’ve done all that, what more can we do?’

  • Many companies are investing in mental health first aiders or mindfulness courses. Track the success of these projects – it will encourage take-up of such projects among employees and chief officers alike.
  • Look for any statistical trends and relationships between quantity and quality of ‘return to work’ interviews and the patterns of sickness thereafter. Do interviews equate to less absence in the future? If not, perhaps you need ‘wellbeing action plans’ instead; check out
  • Ask your employees about actions that have been taken after periods of mental health sickness absence. You may be able to find an action that you can link with reducing the duration or frequency of sickness absence spells. Ask them what stresses them out – you may be able to change it easily.
  • Bring the data to life. Everyone has a sweet spot in terms of what they react to. 
  • Leaders provide really strong role models. They show how experiencing adversity helps to grow skills and experience and this can add to your career success rather than limit it.

James Holdstock is an HR analytics consultant and trainer at Hawksure Analytics. Steve Loft, founder of WellMent, also contributed to this article