How to stop the black dog from becoming the elephant in the room

Michelle Chance, Head of Employment Practice at Bond Dickinson LLP shares some positive strategies that can help employers effectively manage mental illness in the workplace.

Prince Harry talking openly and publicly about the effect of his mother’s death on his mental health recently has done wonders for dispelling the myth that we need to have a stiff upper lip and it is inappropriate to talk openly about our emotional wellbeing.  This will hopefully go a long way towards helping remove the unacceptable stigma which still attaches to mental health issues, in a way in which it doesn’t with physical health conditions.

In this article I am going to focus on practical, but perhaps less well known steps, employers can take which can make a positive difference to the lives of employees dealing with mental health issues in the workplace.

 

View health holistically as a combination of mental and physical health

Employers need to recognise and accept that all employees have mental health, in the same way that they have physical health, and their mental health can move up or down a spectrum from good to poor, depending on factors both in and outside the workplace.

 

Think carefully about how you describe employees with mental health issues

I fundamentally disagree with the term mentally disabled.  In order to change society and many employers’ adverse perceptions of people with mental health conditions, we should describe people with mental health conditions in more positive terms.  Rather than labelling them as mentally “disabled” and focusing negatively on what we assume (wrongfully in many cases) that they cannot do, we should instead view them as “differently abled”, focusing on the positive contribution they can make to the workforce in different and diverse ways.  We need to have open discussions with them about how we can enable them to achieve and surpass their ambitions, rather than disabling them further early on, when we first find out about their mental health condition.

 

Keep in touch appropriately with employees who are off sick with a mental illness

Be aware that once an employee has been off sick with mental health issues for four weeks or more, the chances of them returning to work are much slimmer, as they lose confidence and begin to feel alienated from the business.  Keeping in touch in an appropriate manner is vitally important.

 

Swift early access to Medical Intervention

It is also critical that employers help employees with mental health conditions to access the medical services and the support that they need quickly and swiftly, as early medical intervention will help them return to work sooner.  Employers need to recognise that with the right support, mentally ill employees can return to the same or better performance than previously.

 

Mental Health First Aid Training

Line Managers need mental health first aid training to help them spot the signs of mental illness early on and to equip them to have clear and open discussions with employees about their mental health.  Many employees are promoted into management positions because of their technical skills and ability, but without training, they will not necessarily have the right people management and communication skills to be able to deal with mental health issues in an open and supportive manner.

 

Triggers

Triggers that managers should be particularly alert to avoid include:

  • Long hours, with no breaks;
  • Unrealistic deadlines;
  • High pressure and poor working environments;
  • Impact of the physical working environment on mental wellbeing; such as light, noise, space and temperature;
  • Lack of control over work and unmanageable workloads; and
  • Negative relationships leading to poor communication and lone working.


Unconscious Bias Training

Line Managers, and where possible all employees should receive unconscious bias training, which should deal with outdated unhelpful definitions of weakness and strength.  Mental health problems are very often the curse of the strong, not the weak.

Subconscious bias training is also important in helping employers to challenge assumptions they may make, which may not necessarily be based on medical evidence.  It can also help employers realise that employing people with mental health conditions can build customer loyalty, both amongst disabled and able-bodied customers and clients.

 

Consistent HR Policies which take account of Mental Health

It is important for HR to ensure that all of its policies work together and take account of the impact of certain work issues on mental health; for example redundancy policies should provide for mental health after care.  The following policies should reference mental health: anti-bullying and anti-harassment, performance management, disciplinary, change management, equality, diversity and inclusion.

Subconscious bias training is also important to ensure that policies are not applied inconsistently by different managers  with their own potential subconscious bias about employees with mental health issues.

 

Open and supportive culture of communication

Employers should promote an open and supportive culture, where line managers have regular one to one catch ups with their staff, during which they check in on their mental health wellbeing (whether they are aware of a mental health condition or not) in the same way that they check in on work related matters.  It is important that employees feel able to be authentic and bring their ‘whole self’ to work, rather than pretending to be someone that they’re not, in order to conform and fit in. Difference should be welcomed and embraced.  The stiff upper lip British attitude is not helpful to encouraging open conversations around mental health.

 

Stress Management Training is cost effective

Consider training your workforce on resilience and performance optimisation.  From a financial perspective, stress management programmes can lower employer liability insurance premiums.

 

Include Mental Health in the Induction Process

Mental health information should be included in new joiners induction packs and the sources of support available should be discussed during the induction course.

 

Provide details of Mental Health as well as physical First Aiders

Posters about Mental Health First Aiders should be put up in public spaces, such as kitchens, next to the details of physical First Aiders and Fire Wardens.  This will help to normalise mental health conditions in the same way as physical medical conditions.

 

Address the macho presenteeism culture

Employers also need to address the macho presentee-ism culture.  It is a sobering statistic that £15.1 billion a year is lost in reduced productivity at work.  Presenteeism accounts for 1.5 times as much working time lost as absenteeism, and costs more to employers, because it is more common among more senior highly paid staff.

 

Zero tolerance approach to bullying

Employers need to ensure that a zero tolerance approach to bullying is adopted in their workplace, and those found guilty of such conduct are subject to disciplinary sanctions, regardless of their level of seniority.

 

Link Progression and Reward to looking after employees’ wellbeing

As part of the Appraisal process, remuneration and promotion should be linked to how well individuals look after their fellow employees wellbeing.

 

Baby Steps and Re-integration

It is also about small baby steps and the personal approach that SMEs who have less resources available to them than large institutions can take, that make a massive difference to those suffering with mental illness.  It is important to recognise that employees who have been off sick with a mental health condition can lose confidence and become alienated from the workplace.  It is therefore really vital that on their first day back at work, someone meets them when they first come into the office and takes them to lunch to make them feel welcomed back and comfortable and quickly reintegrated back into the team.

 

Be positive and don’t adopt a one size fits all approach

Line Managers should be positive and focus on what the employee returning to work can do, rather than what they can’t do.  It is a difficult balance, but line managers should not micro manage them, nor should they remove all challenging work from the employee.  They should have an open discussion with the employee to understand what would work best for them personally, recognising that the same mental health condition can affect employees in different ways.

 

It’s a ‘WRAP’

Mind Passport or “Wellness Recovery Action/Assistance Programmes” (“WRAP“) are helpful, in that they enable the employee and employer to sit down together, have an open discussion (which many managers find difficult to do) and draw up a document which sets out clearly the individual employee’s workplace triggers for mental ill-heath, the symptoms to look for, which may indicate that they are suffering from a mental ill-health episode, the support they require from their employer and the key people to contact in a crisis.

 

Balance carefully your responsibilities and duty of care to the employee who is mentally ill against those you owe to their line manager

There needs to be a careful balancing act between early intervention for those with mental health conditions and not putting  too much stress and pressure on line managers to spot the warning signs of the mental health crisis early on, particularly where the symptoms described are generic, for example, intense periods of concentration on a piece of work, which could indicate suicidal thoughts.  Most employers would just interpret this as an employee being focused on a complex piece of work or concentrating hard to complete work within a specific deadline.

It is important that employers do not feel under undue pressure to agree to include in the passport or the WRAP all the symptoms the employee lists, particularly if they are very generic and cannot be easily spotted, as the employer owes a duty of care to those in line management positions not to put them under undue stress and pressure, as well as to the employee with a mental health condition.

 

Not all Mental Health conditions are disabilities

Employers should remember that employees could be suffering from mental health conditions which do not satisfy the legal definition of disability.  Many conditions have not, or are unlikely to last for 12 months or more, particularly those suffering from stress as a short term response to a specific adverse life or work situation.  Such employees still need protection from unfair or discriminatory treatment, even though they are not legally classified as disabled.  Employers should therefore not limit reasonable adjustments only to those who are legally disabled, as making reasonable adjustments, where they will make a real difference to the employee’s working life, and the employer can afford to do so is good for employees wellbeing and will assist employees to return to work sooner, rather than later, and could prevent health conditions from turning into long term disabilities.

 

Diversity attracts new business

Having a diverse workforce which reflects the makeup of the society we live in can also help attract new clients/customers and win new business.  As part of tender processes, many potential clients ask for organisations diversity statistics, which is not purely limited to gender, but also includes, amongst other protected characteristics, the number of disabled employees and could even be split between those with physical and mental health conditions.

 

Open, Supportive, Collegiate Culture

Employers need to realise that with an open and supportive collegiate workplace culture, the “black dog” of mental ill health is nothing to be afraid of, and by taking the practical steps outlined in this article, all employers can play their part in preventing the black dog from turning into the elephant in the room.

Michelle Chance is an employment partner and head of the London employment practice at national law firm Bond Dickinson LLP.  

Author: Editorial Team

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