Beat the (January) blues

We all know that feeling. The fairy lights have been switched off and Christmas is already fading into distant memory.

We all know that feeling. The fairy lights have been switched off and Christmas is already fading into distant memory. Mornings are dark, the weather is dreadful and getting out of bed can sometimes feel like a real struggle. Welcome to January, the most miserable month of the year.

Indeed the third Monday in January, which this year falls on the 21st of the month, has become known as ‘Blue Monday’ and has been labelled the most depressing date on our calendars.  The media tells us that high levels of post-Christmas debt, abandoned new year’s resolutions and little to look forward to, all result in low motivation levels and a ‘slump’ that can leave us feeling unmotivated and ill-equipped to face the challenges of a new year.

Although this malaise alone can have a very real effect on productivity at work, employers should be aware that some employees may be suffering from symptoms that go far beyond the winter blues. Sufferers of recognised mental health conditions, such as clinical depression or anxiety disorder, may find that at this time of year their symptoms may be exacerbated and become more noticeable to their colleagues and employers.

Research cited by ACAS shows that almost three in every ten employees will experience mental health problems in any one year. The Health and Safety Executive estimates that, in the year 2011/12, approximately 10.4 million working days were lost due to absence for stress, depression and anxiety, with 24 days lost per case on average. It is apparent that, as well as impacting profoundly on an employee’s personal life and wellbeing, mental health problems in the workplace are also a costly burden on businesses. Crucially of course, an employee’s depression or anxiety, if long lasting and serious enough, may constitute a disability for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010, triggering a responsibility to make reasonable adjustments.

So how can you as an employer spot the signs that an employee might be depressed, stressed or anxious? And what first steps should you take to tackle such sensitive issues?

It is important to keep your eyes open for any changes in employee behaviour. Although no two employees will experience depression in exactly the same way, there are some common signs to look out for. These might include tiredness and an inability to concentrate leading to decreased productivity, mistakes or even accidents. A reliable attendee may begin arriving late for work or you may notice uncharacteristic displays of emotion, such as irritability or tearfulness, in the normally calm or composed. Perhaps a normally chatty or outgoing employee has become more withdrawn and is avoiding interaction with colleagues or a trailblazing team leader is suddenly indecisive? Absenteeism or a sudden loss of motivation may also be telltale signs.

Of course, not every employee who is ‘stressed’ or struggling will be suffering from a ‘disability’ meeting the legal definition set out in the Equality Act. The term ‘stress’, for example, is commonly used to describe a broad spectrum of problems, from the fleeting to the chronic. However, this should not negate the importance of effective intervention.  There is no need to rush too soon into questioning whether or not an employee is medically or legally disabled. Rather, at least in the first instance, adopt a ‘best practice’ approach, treating any individual you are concerned about as in need of your support.

It is rare for an employee to talk voluntarily about a mental health issue. Embarrassment, or risk of causing offence, can make managers reluctant to make the first move. However, it is important to take action promptly. Try to arrange a moment to catch the employee privately and to informally ask if they are all right. Briefly state your concerns, giving examples if you can. To avoid appearing critical, acknowledge the change in the employee’s behaviour and reassure them that, until recently, their performance or behaviour have not been a worry for you.

 When prompted, an employee may be willing or even relieved to talk about what is troubling them. If a domestic issue is at the heart of the problem, then talk to the employee about any changes which can make things easier, such as flexible working, a temporary reduction in hours or perhaps even a short period of paid leave. Arm yourself with details of any wellbeing services, counselling services or employee assistance programmes available, so you are able to offer practical support – a website address or helpline number – as well as a listening ear.

If the employee raises work related issues then, as their employer, you have the responsibility and potentially the control to help remedy them. Sit down with the employee to talk through their role and workload. Consider whether the employee might benefit from additional supervision or support.  Perhaps it might be appropriate to offer the employee some training on time-management or how best to handle stress. In short, listen to the employee’s specific concerns and try to be as open-minded and creative as you can as to how these might be addressed.

If problems persist, it is strongly advisable, if the employee will consent, to refer the employee formally to an expert in occupational health. A medical professional will be able to assess the employee’s condition alongside the requirements of their role, and (you hope) provide precise guidance about what they can and can’t do. They will also give you a medically-qualified assessment against the essential elements of the legal test for disability, including: impact on the employee’s day to day activities; the effect of any medication they are taking; the likelihood that the condition will recur; and their limitations – both in the long and short term. This is essential knowledge to enable you do the best for your employees and act within the law.

Finally, be sure to follow up your discussion, either with scheduled one-to-one chats or the occasional friendly enquiry about how the employee is doing. The supportive atmosphere this creates will be much appreciated and is sure to benefit the employee’s recovery. Consider keeping brief diary notes of your discussions with the employee and the efforts you have made to support them. Such a paper-trail will pay dividends in the event that you find yourself in an Employment Tribunal situation.

But even if you are not currently faced with a situation of this magnitude, why not seize the opportunity to turn a miserable month around? Whatever the size or nature of your business, January is a great time to start a discussion about fostering good mental health in the workplace and  to think creatively about what you might do to up the ‘feel good factor’ amongst your staff. Why not plan a fun workplace event for January; something as simple as a quiz or a friendly competition in support of a nominated charity? Or perhaps now might be a good time to remind employees of any support, training or employee benefits you already currently offer. Evidence also suggests that exercise and a balanced diet can help treat mild to moderate depression, so encourage employees to take a break and eat lunch away from their desks.

The smallest steps, taken with thought and care, can make a huge difference and help make the dark winter months a little brighter for everyone.

Louise Singh, Professional Support Lawyer, louise.singh@weightmans.com

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