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ClearingWednesday 08 January 2020

Clearing the Fog Around Mental Health at Work - The Basics.

We live in a time when mental health awareness and advocacy -- a subject previously considered less important than physical health and safety risks -- is resurgent in both the private and professional spheres. Many employers may be feeling unaccustomed to handling mental health concerns, either through lack of familiarity or from a belief that such issues are not as important as the discourse claims. However, in an increasingly digitized and fragmented working world, mental health is a subject that will not be going away, and it is important that employers understand how to manage both their own mental health and that of their employees.

According to the HSE website, one in four UK citizens will experience a mental health issue at some point in their life. A direct result of the increased transparency on the issue is that more and more sufferers, who may previously not have felt comfortable disclosing personal information at work, are coming forward with their experiences. While many common problems can be solved with a visit to the GP and the prescription of right medication or treatment, that is not always the case. A degree of openness and sensitivity goes a long way when dealing with any employee health issues, and mental health is no exception. The repercussions of not taking such incidents seriously can cause a spiral in wellbeing and productivity, creating unnecessary tension in the workplace and further risks for the employee for anxiety and depression.

Employers may have extra responsibilities if an employee discloses their mental health conditions as part of equality legislation. These situations are usually handled by line managers in the first instance, and adequate training is recommended. It is often prudent for line managers to approach mental health issues with an exploratory and empathetic attitude. Sometimes an employee can be helped simply through their superiors having an understanding of their condition, so that flexible strategies can be deployed to assist them. The implementation of short-term adjustments can make a striking difference to the employee’s ability to function and successfully communicate in the workplace. A total understanding of the employee’s diagnosis is not required, only an earnest attempt to mitigate the situation based on the information available.

Line managers are encouraged to touch base with the employee on a regular basis to see how they are coping. If for any reason the employee has to take time away from work, it is helpful to maintain communication, keeping them informed of what is happening in the organization, including social events. This helps the unwell employee remain part of the team and assuages feelings of stigmatisation. It is important to recognise that no two people have the same experience of mental health difficulty, and that each case is considered unique and no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions are thoughtlessly applied. If an employee has had an extended period off work, a neutral and non-judgemental written return to work plan can be a useful document to deploy. Once the employee has reached their prior levels of stability, standard managerial ‘checking-in’ practices can resume.

Employees may also need to take time off work to care for partners or family members who are suffering from mental health issues. In these cases, the same general philosophies apply.

In more serious cases, such as where an employee suffers from advanced psychosis, depression or panic attacks, creating an ‘advance statement’ may be helpful. Essentially, these documents are action plans for instances where an employee suddenly becomes unwell. The statement lists practical details such as 1) the early signs of illness 2) who might need to be contacted in the event of a mental health emergency or 3) what forms of support are helpful and unhelpful. This last point is especially pertinent as actions that might seem like common sense during a difficult mental health episode will not always translate well in the moment. Discussing this in advance allows the line manager to prepare a plan that all parties can recognise as being both sensitive and effective. Note: If a plan is drawn up, follow it! Caring about these details will be one of the most important parts of maintaining trust with the unwell party.

More details on mental health best practice at work can be found at hse.gov.uk.

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