Supporting an employee struggling with their mental health: six simple steps
Louise Singh sets out six simple steps to identify and support an employee who may be suffering with mental health issues.
The movement to prioritise employee mental health at work is rapidly gaining momentum and profile, with ACAS publishing new guidance and resources earlier this year.
Of course, as well as impacting profoundly on an employee's personal life and wellbeing, mental health problems in the workplace also impact on productivity. 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? To mark World Mental Health Day which fell earlier this month, we have put together a simple six step guide to help you identify and support members of staff who may be struggling.
1. Keep a watchful eye
Firstly, 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 Perhaps a normally chatty or outgoing employee has become more withdrawn and is avoiding interaction with colleagues or a trailblazing team leader is suddenly indecisive?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 tell-tale signs.
2. Don't rush towards the 'disability' question
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.
3. Question carefully
It is rare for an employee to talk voluntarily about a mental health issue and 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 alright. 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.
4. Offer support and assistance
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 you can make to 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 control to help remedy them. Sit down with the employee to talk through their role and workload. Perhaps it might be appropriate to offer the employee some in-house or external 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.
5. Consider obtaining expert advice
If problems persist, it is strongly advisable, if the employee will consent, to refer the employee formally to an occupational health specialist. A medical professional will be able to assess the employee's condition and provide you with informed practical advice, as well as considering 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 abilities and limitations – both in the long and short term; essential knowledge to enable you to do the best for your employees and act within the law.
6. Keep talking
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. Cynical though it may seem, establishing a collaborative paper-trail will pay dividends in the event that you find yourself in an employment tribunal situation.
Putting mental health on your workplace agenda
Even if you are not currently faced with a situation of this magnitude, why not seize the opportunity to proactively let employees know that you are concerned about their wellbeing and start a discussion about fostering good mental health in the workplace. Start by reminding 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 staff remain and thrive in work.
At Weightmans, we recognise that mental health is just as important as physical health and we are proud to have fifteen employees trained as Mental health First Aiders by MHFA England, with plans to extend this to more staff in the coming months.
Louise Singh (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Professional Support Lawyer supporting the national Employment, Pensions and Immigration Team at Weightmans LLP and is based in Liverpool. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact Louise or speak to your usual Weightmans advisor.