Guest Blog By Robey Jenkins
Last week I looked at the experience of working whilst also living with mental illness. But this isn’t a problem that can be solved only by the sufferer and his or her medical professionals. In a competitive market, employers need every edge they can get to seek out and retain the best people. But no one is perfect. Everyone comes with baggage. And sometimes, that baggage means mental illness.
Having a strategy to deal with mental illness, then, isn’t a question of charity or political correctness. It’s about giving yourself a practical competitive edge to make sure that you can get the very best out of your workforce. That fact that it also protects you from allegations of unfair discrimination – and also happens to be the decent thing to do – is a bonus.
Managing Mental Health in Recruitment
Most times, people will not disclose chronic health issues at the interview stage and you really shouldn’t ask. But you can still start thinking about it, even if you don’t know whether your candidates are sufferers.
For a start, you could subscribe to the Mindful Employer scheme and display its charter logo on your advertising materials, which is an explicit sign of an employer sympathetic to the needs of those with mental illness. But there are more subtle indicators, which include making a point of advertising the other benefits you offer that might appeal.
If someone does disclose mental illness during selection, make a point of disregarding it. This is where a structured interview, with scripted questions, notes and objective scoring plays a vital role.
Managing Mental Health in Induction
The point at which you are likely to find out about a history of mental illness is in the induction phase, where it may arise through a medical questionnaire or from a health screening process – or the employee may raise it now, themselves.
An employee disclosing what may constitute a disability is an important event and needs to be recorded, somehow. Should there be problems down the line, anyone dealing with it needs to know that the employee has made a disclosure of a protected characteristic. But this recording also needs to be sensitive and discreet – here comes General Data Protection Regulations, and we need to make sure that we record personal data legally and in a way that respects employees’ privacy.
Let them know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it before you begin the conversation about reasonable adjustments. If their condition is well managed by medication, they may need nothing. But with depression and bipolar disorder being diagnosed more frequently and accurately, you need to know that there are days when the pills can’t even scratch the surface. So you should anticipate a certain amount of sickness absence – and pay attention when it doesn’t materialize! People working with a chronic condition of any sort have to work harder to keep their attendance up and deserve more appreciation for the effort: a gesture that will help to persuade them that it was worthwhile.
Managing Mental Health in Employment
I’m a big believer in the benefit of an Employee Welfare Service – a confidential, external counselling service to which employees can be referred, either to help with chronic mental health or just to help people through times of crisis, be it work or personal. These may or may not be used a great deal, but the ability to show that they exist at all is a huge help: it shows that you, the employer, are trying to be proactive to help those with mental illness.
I also encourage openness about mental illness. Having business leaders who feel comfortable sharing their personal experiences will reassure others that the employer is sympathetic and that they can acknowledge and be open about their own mental health without fear of judgement or discrimination. And what’s known about can be planned for. If you’re large enough and have the facilities, then a company-promoted support group – even something as simple as a WhatsApp group or Yammer group, if you can’t manage a physical one – can also send the right messages.
Training, naturally, plays its part and line managers especially need to attend regular update training on mental health. It’s a developing field and it’s not enough to do a course once. I recommend biannual training in this are – but it doesn’t need to be time-consuming. An online tutorial to keep the memory fresh and update knowledge is usually enough. If you can extend similar training to everyone, even better – but make sure that business leaders take part, visibly. Too often such training can be seen as something left to the peons, but without an example from the top, nothing will change.
Managing Mental Health in the Exit
For all our best efforts, for some people a decline in their health and their continuing employment are simply incompatible. But being dismissed simply isn’t nice, whatever the reasons. So when you’ve got someone who is particularly sensitive to emotional triggers, dismissal is an even heavier blow than it is for most. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t dismiss people under these circumstances – you aren’t obliged to carry employees whose cost outweighs their business value – but it does mean doing so with more sensitivity and support.
The aforementioned Employee Welfare Service is a very useful referral tool under these circumstances. Allow, also, for additional sickness absence during the notice period. Make sure to review the reasons for the dismissal with care and diligence – both to protect you from litigation but also to protect you from dismissing what could still be a valuable asset.
And if it genuinely was only the absence that was a problem, leave the door open as they leave. If they can find the right treatment regime, or a working pattern that suits them, or even might be open to casual or consulting work, don’t cut the thread.
Working alongside people living with mental illness can force us to think differently – more flexibly, more imaginatively – about how we approach, assess and structure work. And this is a good thing. So remember – as you find yourself forced to be flexible and imaginative to accommodate them – that this is how many of them have to live every day. Being flexible and imaginative is often the only way someone with mental illness can even make it to work. And that’s not a resource that should be thrown away lightly.