Managing workplace mental health issues

Joanne Holborn outlines how HR professionals can best support employees with mental ill-health

Generally, employers know how to tackle physical health at work, but lack confidence in supporting employees who have mental health issues. 

The need to deal with mental health in the workplace, however, is becoming increasingly prominent. According to the Mental Health Foundation, one in seven people are experiencing mental health problems in the workplace and 13 per cent of all sickness absence days in the UK can be attributed to mental ill-health. So what should employers do to manage mental health in the workplace?

Encourage conversations about mental health

Starting a conversation with an employee about mental health doesn’t have to be difficult. Encouraging an open culture where employees feel like they can talk to each other and/or managers will undoubtedly help alleviate stress in the workplace. 

Deal with the medical certificate

It is important for employers to deal with a medical certificate stating mental ill-health appropriately, by contacting the employee to find out if work is a contributing factor in triggering it and if there are any steps that can be taken to alleviate or eliminate the cause as soon as possible. 

Appropriate contact should be maintained with an employee on sick leave during the entirety of their absence. An employer should discuss with the employees what measures it may be able to take to help an employee return to work at the earliest opportunity. 

Don’t let matters drift during long-term sick leave

Employers should deal with issues head on when absence presents unacceptable levels of disruption to the business, rather than allowing the situation to drift to the point where the employee has been off for so long that dismissal looks like the only viable option. 

What about disciplinary proceedings?

A common problem for employers is that of the employee who, upon being told to attend a disciplinary hearing, goes off sick citing stress as the cause. Contrary to popular belief, the default position is not to postpone. In most cases, medical advice will suggest that dealing with the disciplinary issue will be more beneficial to the employee. 

Manage poor performance

Where performance becomes an issue, discuss it with the employee promptly and explain that they are not performing to acceptable standards. If disciplinary action is necessary, ensure fair and appropriate procedures are followed with reference to any relevant internal policies and the Acas Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures. 

Consider reasonable adjustments

You may consider making reasonable adjustments to help an employee stay in work or return to work while they are experiencing mental ill-health. Flexible working is a potential option, e.g., allowing them to start later or finish earlier, reducing their working days, or providing them with remote access software and permission to work at home on set days.

Train your staff

Training line managers and senior staff to recognise mental ill-health symptoms will help them to manage staff with varying degrees of mental health issues.

Joanne Holborn is head of employment at Baines Wilson