It’s good to talk

With one in four of us suffering from a mental health problem at some point in our life, it is clear that mental ill health does not discriminate and that it can affect anyone and at any time.

As a Mental Health Tribunal member, I am well aware of the difficulties and stigma which surround mental illness. This is particularly true in the workplace where there has been a long held negative connotation associated with even discussing mental health, but it is only by talking about these issues that we can ensure that people feel they are able to reach out and get the support they need.

That is certainly borne out by the brave individuals in the public eye who are now coming forward to talk about their life long struggles with anxiety, depression and self-harm. From footballers and pop stars to actors, politicians and even Royalty; by talking publicly about mental ill health like this, not only are they raising awareness and improving our understanding of these illnesses but they are giving a loud and clear message that it is OK to talk about it.

Mental health in the workplace
It is well documented that the provision of mental health services across the UK is inadequate and recent pledges from the Prime Minister on prevention as well as treatment should be welcomed. With a quarter of us suffering from a mental health problem at some point in our life, this is not something that employers can ignore. This article looks specifically at dealing with mental health in the workplace.

Mental health problems cost employers in the UK around £30 billion a year through lost production, recruitment and absence. Even though they are so common, most people find mental issues difficult to talk about. This unwillingness to discuss them only exacerbates the problem and many employers simply aren’t doing enough to deal with it.

Mental health problems can seem too personal and too complex to talk about; an individual will probably feel quite happy to tell a colleague about a physical injury that they have sustained, but when it comes to their mental health, they find it very difficult to talk about it and it may prove equally difficult to listen to.

The definition of our mental health is the mental and emotional state in which we feel able to cope with the normal stresses of everyday life. If we are feeling good about ourselves we can work productively, interact well with colleagues and make a valuable contribution in the workplace.

But positive mental health is rarely an absolute state; one may feel in good mental health generally but also suffer stress or anxiety from time to time. Mental ill health can range from feeling ‘a little down’ to common disorders such as anxiety and depression, and much less commonly to severe mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

Mental health conditions can emerge suddenly, because of a specific incident, or gradually over a period of time when the condition may worsen or improve. Some illnesses can be persistent and may be classed as a disability while others come and go.

What is a mental health condition?
• Depression
• Stress
• Schizophrenia
• Bipolar Disorder
• Anxiety
• Psychosis

What is not a mental health condition?
• Learning difficulties
• Dyslexia
• Asperger’s Syndrome
• Autism
• ME/chronic fatigue
• Epilepsy

It is very important to be aware of conditions that may amount to disability and that can include learning disability or an autistic spectrum disorder. These would come under the protected characteristic of a disability within in employment law.

Not listening can be very costly both to the individual concerned and to your business. It is estimated that employers could cut the cost of lost production due to mental health problems and replacing staff by about a third if they improve their management of mental health at work.

Tackle the stigma
Mental health rarely conforms to stereotypes. For example, someone can be diagnosed with a mental health condition such as bipolar disorder, but have a very positive state of mental health.

Focus on the practical things you can do to help
Some of the factors that influence an individual’s mental health are out of your control. But you can help by monitoring workloads, employee involvement, the physical environment and the nature of relationships at work.

Develop solutions by listening
Sometimes all you need to do is help employees to help themselves. An employee may already have coping strategies or medical advice that they can follow, but showing empathy always helps. If you show that there is no stigma to talking about these issues, you will give your employees confidence in being able to discuss them with you and their colleagues. That in istelf can be an important step on the road to recovery

Don’t give advice about a mental health problem unless you are qualified to do so.
Don’t disclose a person’s condition to anyone else without the consent of the person.
Don’t feel guilty, instead focus on identifying any work-related causes of the problem.

Spot the signs
Common symptoms of mental ill health might include an increase in unexplained absences or sick leave, poor performance, poor timekeeping, poor decision-making, a lack of energy and uncommunicative or moody behaviour.

This may initially mean taking a note of what you see as you walk around or in team meetings and then choosing the right moment to intervene.

Reflect on what you know about your colleague, is their mental health generally good and are they usually happy to come to you with problems?

Engage with the problem

There are some good practical steps you can take to help with coping strategies, and some legal requirements you need to bear in mind, for example your duty to make reasonable workplace adjustments to the working environment in certain circumstances.

Start by having a quiet word – you may discover that something at home is troubling them and you just need to show understanding and patience.

If they are returning from sickness absence hold a ‘return to work discussion’ and try and find out the nature of the problem.

Reflect on what you know about your colleague, is their mental health generally good and are they usually happy to come to you with problems?

Getting help

If the problem is very serious, the employee may need to seek specialist help. You should consider using the help that is available to you. Some employers have Employee Assistance Programmes which are designed to provide employees with counselling and advice for a wide range of personal and work problems. You may also be able to refer employees to local occupational health services.

Keep a watching brief
This does not necessarily mean passively observing, although in some circumstances this may be the best option. Promote awareness of mental health issues and create a culture where employees feel they can talk to you about their concerns. Keeping communication channels open is of course critical.

Mental health conditions are complex and can last for many years, so you need to be vigilant about any changes in patterns of behaviour such as general resilience to stressful situations, how the individual’s condition is affecting the team and make sure that you are up to date with new help that may be available. If there is no actual medical diagnosis you will need to keep working to motivate and engage with the employee.

If the mental health condition is classed as a disability you have a legal duty to consider reasonable adjustments to help the employee stay in work or get back to work quickly but do remember you are not there to cure people, only to help them manage their own conditions.
More generally, education around mental health issues will help to fight the misconceptions people have about mental illness, your induction procedures are a really good way of setting out your policy on mental health.

If you would like professional advice on how to deal with mental health in the workplace, please do not hesitate to contact me and I will be more than happy to talk through how best to handle an individual situation or more generally ensure that you are meeting your legal obligations as an employer.