How to effectively manage mental health concerns in the workplace

Andy Williams and Chelsea Feeney outline ways employers can best support those experiencing symptoms of mental ill-health

The last few years have understandably had an adverse impact on mental health in the UK. The isolation of hybrid working, the rising costs of living and threat of job losses are all factors that could contribute to worsening mental health and in turn, impact an individual’s work.

Mental health conditions can affect an employee’s timekeeping, their efficiency and productivity levels and even their ability to turn up to work at all. Recent data shows that 18.6 million working days were lost to employee mental health conditions in 2022. This worrying statistic demonstrates that mental health issues are directly affecting businesses in the UK and reinforces the importance for employers to have the necessary knowledge and tools to compassionately support struggling employees.

In some instances, mental health conditions can fall within the definition of disability under the Equality Act 2010, meaning that the employee is protected from discrimination under the relevant legislation. Among other things, this obliges the employer to make reasonable adjustments to allow them to continue to work.  A failure on the employer’s part to acknowledge a mental health issue, or to support the employee by making reasonable adjustments, could give rise to discrimination claims from employees. These can prove extremely costly to employers if the claims are successful, not to mention the impact on time, staff morale and reputation.

What can employers do to support employees experiencing mental health issues?

When an employee is struggling with their mental health, it is important that they feel comfortable enough to discuss this with either their line manager or a member of HR.  If the employee does not feel that they are working in an environment in which it is safe to discuss such issues, then the situation is likely to deteriorate.  As such, employers should take a preventative approach to mental health. 

What preventive measures could firms employ? 

The introduction of training on mental health and wellbeing for employees who manage staff and for those in HR is an important first step. This would ensure staff in key roles have the requisite knowledge to identify, and deal effectively with, mental health issues in a caring and compassionate way.

Employers could introduce mental health champion roles to certain employees, with the aim that they raise awareness of mental health issues in the workplace and how to spot burnout in colleagues.  This could also involve gathering ideas from other employees as to how to facilitate a better working environment.

Stress can be a major contributing factor to mental health conditions and as such it is important to reduce workplace stress where possible. Practical steps include carrying out risk assessments and employee surveys to identify where stress occurs, implementing policies on mental health and stress to ensure employees have a clear route to resolution if they are experiencing stress, and promoting a positive work-life balance, e.g., encouraging the use of annual leave and not promoting a culture of long working hours. 

It is important to ensure that managers have regular catch-up meetings with staff they are responsible for.  This is primarily to build trusting relationships and enable early identification of any concerns.  Staff surveys are also a useful tool to detect any wider mental health issues in the workplace, as employees are sometimes more likely to share an issue or concern anonymously. Once it is known that an employee is struggling with mental health, employers should then be on the front foot with making reasonable adjustments to the working environment.

What adjustments should employers consider?

Changing the employee’s physical working environment could help to alleviate a mental health condition, or at least help in managing any symptoms.  In practice this could mean allowing remote working or moving the employee’s desk to a quieter area with fewer disturbances.

Employers could also go a step further, making changes to existing policies to accommodate employees experiencing mental health issues, such as allowing paid time off to attend appointments or offering phased returns to work after periods of absence, where such policies aren’t already in place.

Ultimately, firms should strive to ensure the employee feels comfortable. This could involve reviewing differing communication or working styles between the employee and the individuals they work directly with; ideally ensuring everyone is aligned as to how best to communicate or work with the employee. Preferably, someone should take responsibility for checking in with the employee regularly, to ensure a consistent, trusted point of contact.  This person could be a member of HR, the employee’s line manager or another designated buddy or mentor.

Where other adjustments are not sufficient, employers should consider if changes to the employee’s responsibilities or role would assist with the resolution of the issue.  Changes could include reviewing worklists to ensure the employee has a reasonable workload and reducing the more stressful responsibilities or moving the employee (permanently or temporarily) into a different role or department. This could ultimately be the difference between the retention of good talent or losing the employee to another company if they feel ill-supported.  

Employers should always take mental health issues seriously and should seek to engage with the employee at the earliest opportunity. Facilitating a supportive and open culture in the workplace will ensure that employees feel comfortable in bringing any issues to their employer’s attention before it’s too late and maximises the chance of both parties working constructively together to deal effectively with the issues in hand.

Andy Williams is partner and Chelsea Feeney is associate at Stevens & Bolton LLP