Claire Merritt | 21st April 2021

Managing employees with mental health issues


Claire Merritt | 21st April 2021

Managing employees with mental health issues

Managing employees with mental health issues is complicated, and poor mental health has significant consequences for employers including lost productivity and increased staff turnover. It is also a significant factor in absence days with over half of all the working days lost in the UK due to ill health being connected to mental ill health. Whilst most employers now understand the importance of good mental health, many managers still receive little training on these issues and feel uncomfortable managing employees suffering from mental ill health when issues arise.

5 Key things to consider when managing employees with mental health issues

These are the key things you should be considering when managing employees with mental health issues:

1. Be clear on your obligations

Given that many still feel cautious about disclosing mental health issues, some employers may feel unclear about how much they can or indeed should, support their staff.

Employers are responsible for helping employees manage work related stress. The legal obligations are:

  • to take reasonable care of employees’ health and safety; and
  • to assess the risk of stress related ill health arising from work activities.

Employers should therefore be mindful of risk factors and manage these where possible. Mind sets these down in their booklet ‘Managing and Supporting Mental Health at Work’. They are:

  • Long hours
  • Unrealistic expectations and deadlines
  • High-pressure environments
  • Lack of control in your workload
  • Job insecurity and change management
  • Lone working

It is also important to note that some mental health issues will be classified as a disability under the Equality Act, which means that reasonable adjustments must be made in the workplace. These adjustments should be considered in conjunction with medical evidence about the impact a mental health condition has on an employee and ways to relieve any disadvantage caused.

The reasonable adjustments that should be made will of course depend on the individual, but some common changes we see include different hours, a phased return after a long absence, reduced workload, or giving the employee a mentor.

Even where employees have not formally disclosed they are suffering from mental ill health, reasonable steps should be taken and systems should be in place to find out relevant information, whilst also considering issues of privacy. Employers should always give the employee the opportunity to explain the reason for their actions or dips in performance at work, and if health issues are mentioned in these discussions, should then investigate further before reaching a decision.

2. Take proactive steps

When it comes to managing employees with mental health issues, preventative measures are really important. There are preventative steps you can take to try and proactively support employees and prevent problems occurring. Our top tips for this are:

  1. Check in with employees regularly – Make sure regular catch ups are scheduled in advance with employees, both individually and as a team. These may need to be more frequent when dealing with remote workers.
  2. Create a positive atmosphere which encourages conversation – you need to ensure that employees feel like they can ask for help when it is needed.
  3. Encourage employees to use the support tools available to them. This may be sharing external resources, such as Solent Mind, or internal resources like your employee assistance team.
  4. Encourage a positive work/life balance – it’s easier for employees to work longer hours and take fewer breaks when working from home. Encourage employees to take breaks and also look after their own wellbeing.
  5. Appointing mental health first aiders – Appointing and training mental health first aiders can be a great way to support your employees and spot issues early. It also means that employees have someone in the business they can go to that isn’t their manager, to sign post them so they can get the support they need.

3. Know the triggers

Knowing whether or not an employee is struggling with a mental health issue can be incredibly difficult. Behavioural factors that you may see are:

  • Lateness
  • Withdrawal
  • Working long hours, change in work pattern
  • Uncharacteristic problems with colleagues
  • Short term absences – watch short term absences may be due to underlying condition
  • Long term absences

These behavioural red flags are even harder to spot when someone is working from home, so it makes open and frequent communication even more important when managing employees with mental health issues.

Some situations we see with our clients are:

  • The implosion – This is when a manager knew nothing about the mental health issues and then suddenly the employee is off sick for a long period.
  • The impotent manager – The manager is too fearful to address issues and communication is rare or non-existent.
  • The chronically embittered – A spiral of employee anger and blame against the employer.
  • The fearful employee – Some employees will not share that they have a mental health issue for fear that it will affect their career, how they are viewed at work, or their future prospect.

It’s important that employers do as much as possible to avoid these situations happening; good communication is often the first step.

4. Keep communication open

When an employee discloses a mental health issue, the first step is to ensure they feel safe and listened to. It’s so important not to shy away from the issues raised. The most common complaint we hear from employees is that their concerns were dismissed or not taken seriously.

Listen to the employee’s concerns. Managers shouldn’t feel that they have to offer immediate solutions. It will usually be enough simply to come away with an understanding of the employee’s concerns and the employee feeling they have been listened to. You can then consider afterwards how you can best support the employee.

5. Follow a robust performance management process

Poor mental health can affect performance. When managing employees with mental health issues, you still should follow performance management procedures. When mental health issues play a role, managers should adjust this process so that it remains fair. For instance, something we often see is the employee having a friend or family member attend meetings. It’s sensible to consider if you need a medical opinion to make sure any adjustments to the process are fair.

A fair performance management procedure will involve:

  • Consultation with employee
  • Medical investigation often with input from a GP or Occupational Health
  • Considering re-deployment
  • Reasonable adjustments

Ultimately when it comes to managing employees with mental health issues, as an employer you are not expected to have all the answers, and often third-party support such as occupational health will be necessary. While mental health issues are complex, we can summarise by encouraging you to remember 3 key things for good management:

  1. Be as proactive as you possibly can and don’t shy away from issues – communicate, communicate, communicate!
  2. Ensure you have fair processes in place
  3. Get help from medical professionals and other organisations such as Mind

We provide Line Manager training throughout the year and we have one coming up in May on Mental Health in the Workplace.  Follow the link for further details and to register to attend.

If you have any concerns on managing employees with mental health issues please contact a member of the Employment team.

If you would prefer, you can listen to the podcast on managing mental health in the workplace.