Guest blog by Eleanor Gilbert, senior associate in the employment team at Winckworth Sherwood
While it is a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments for disabled workers, responsibilities around supporting mental health are far less clear cut. Initiatives such as having more plants in the workplace, or allowing employees to bring their pets to work, may be a good starting point, but are hardly likely to drive the significant change that’s going to be required if employers want to seriously reduce the £100 billion that mental health costs the economy every year.
There are, however, some tangible and proactive steps employers can take to address issues with mental health in the workplace:
- Something often overlooked is having a set of policies which are user friendly, tailored to the business and which will actually be helpful on a practical level. This will give employers the infrastructure to help tackle issues with mental health and to do so confidently.
- Do not just pay lip service to policies – implement them. A business may have a suite of perfect policies, but they are no good to anyone if they are not used or worse still if employees are not typically aware of where they are and how to access them.
- Training. It may seem like a cliché, but training staff (and providing specialist training for HR professionals) on stress and wellbeing in the workplace, unconscious bias and mental health in general is a good preventative measure. As well as generally raising awareness and reinforcing the fact that invisible illnesses are illnesses nonetheless.
- Nip issues in the bud. All too often we see cases where toxic behaviour has been tolerated for sustained periods and relationships have been allowed to fester until it reaches the point of no return. Take action where you can see issues are starting to occur and use open communication to try to work through the problem before it escalates. And take behavioural problems seriously, as they could be a threat to the business in the long term and could expose the employer to claims and costly legal action.
- Remember that everyone is different. Some people can tolerate any hostility or tricky personalities much better than others and everyone has different sensitivities. What could be water off a duck’s back to one person, could be bullying for another causing stress and triggering anxiety and other mental health conditions. Be particularly alive to managers (typically) who blow hot and cold – this can constitute a type of bullying which is difficult for the recipient to articulate/raise, yet can be one of the more destructive types, in my experience.
- One size most certainly does not fit all. Mental health is complicated and nuanced and employers should avoid making assumptions about someone’s illness. Talk to the employee and seek medical and/or Occupational Health advice where appropriate.
It is difficult to know precisely what issues will arise in the workplace and when, but employers will not be criticised for being supportive and empathetic. And while pot plants and pets will not be a defence in the event of a stress-related claim, they can’t do any harm!