Mental health in the workplace: an employer's quick guide
Let’s be frank, talking about mental health is an awkward process. Awkward for the sufferer and awkward for the listener. Take by way of comparison a physical ailment. A broken leg, perhaps. The employee hops into work on crutches and is quite happy to describe how they sustained their injury – “I was skiing and narrowly missed an avalanche, but having saved a small child from almost certain death and whilst racing down the mountain, I struck a rock!”
The sufferer of a mental illness cannot share such a story. There’s not much glamour in telling your boss that you woke up, wished you were dead and went straight back to bed. Only the physical, it appears, matters. If you have physical scars you can wear them like medals, if you have mental scars polite society demands they are kept hidden.
There is also a completely different approach to assessing physical as opposed mental health risks. We all know that Health and Safety will come down on us like a ton of bricks (no doubt itself causing injury!) if that piece of threadbare carpet is ignored. But how often do employers risk-assess the constant work demands they place on their staff? If an employee is lucky, it may be touched upon in an appraisal but more often than not the assumption will be that if an individual “can’t take the heat, they should get out the kitchen”.
Yet mental illness is at epidemic proportions. Moreover, levels of stress, anxiety and depression are particularly marked in the developed world, with one-in-four adults in the UK allegedly experiencing mental illness during their lifetime. Why allegedly? Because many experts believe the figure to be higher still at at least 50% of the population.
So, there is really no excuse for physical and mental illnesses to be treated differently.
How not to manage mental health issues in the workplace
But why is there this difference in approach? Well, in the absence of a dramatic story behind the sufferer’s stress (James Bond doesn’t cry in the face of his nemesis!), much comes down to the fact that mental illness is unseen.
As seeing is believing, this leads to the suspicion that the condition is at best exaggerated and at worst a figment of a flawed imagination. I have lost count of the number of times mentally ill clients of mine have been told by their employers to “pull themselves together”.
All too common management techniques include:
- Ignoring the issue
- Passing the problem on
- Avoiding/excluding the individual
- Perceiving it as a weakness
Is it therefore any surprise that the mentally ill often present their mental illness as a physical condition – “I’m not coming in today as I have a dreadful headache/cold/flu/hayfever!”
How can I identify mental health issues?
There are considerable legal risks associated with ignoring the plight of the mentally ill, of course. Worst case scenario could be their suicide and your incarceration on a corporate manslaughter charge. If anything is likely to bring the callus business owner to the point of mental breakdown, this is it!
Some ways to help you identify mental health issues:
- Know your staff
- Know their background
- Meaningful appraisals and supervisions
- Ask others to look out for each other
- Identify trends or traits
- Encourage socialising outside the workplace
Legal repercussions of ignoring mental health issues
Even in cases which end on an altogether less tragic note the legal repercussions can be considerable and often include:
- Disability discrimination
- Breach of duty of care/personal injury
- Actual or constructive dismissal claims
- Protection of Harassment Act claim
What are the employer’s responsibilities when it comes to managing mental health?
Even taking the law out of the equation, managing the mental health of your staff makes perfect sense. There is no point burning your staff out. Nor is there any point in creating an environment in which productivity will inevitably suffer and profits fall.
- Provide a safe and supportive working environment
- Take reasonable steps to safeguard health and welfare
- Risk assess work environment
- Have robust policies in place
Consider too the other knock-on effects of mental illness in terms of relationship breakdown (both professional and personal) and substance misuse. Ironically, the latter has the capacity of cruelly squaring the mental/physical illness circle, creating physical illness from mental illness but without the appealing backstory.
It is also notable that many individuals suffering from mental illness have a huge amount to offer. Think Abraham Lincoln, think Martin Luther King, think Steve Jobs, think, even, Winston Churchill.
Also look at Silicon Valley and how the tech industries there have a disproportionately high number of staff on the autistic spectrum because they are, in every sense of the word, brilliant.
The bottom line has to be that if you look after your staff, they will generally look after you. Importantly, though, this means that they should be given the opportunity to perform and get to a position where they can fully contribute. The law only requires an employer to do what is reasonable to get to such a position, nothing more.
Given this evidence, we trust you will agree that you would have to be nuts not to give your employees that chance.
If you would like any advice on mental health issues in the workplace or any other issue, please contact a member of the Employment team.