Opinion

Supporting mental health at work: getting started

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Given I am going to say that it helps us all if people can be open about their mental health, I am going to start by saying I have a mental health condition. I have depression and generalised anxiety.


In fact, most people reading this will have had experience of mental health issues at some point – either themselves or among their colleagues, family or friends.

Presenteeism and leavism are both on the rise. Presenteeism (working while ill when you shouldn’t), and leavism (working while on holiday), are not new issues but have been brought into the spotlight by changes to working arrangements during the pandemic.

Simon Stephen: "People will generally not disclose problems like unmanageable work-related stress or poor mental health if it feels psychologically unsafe to do so."

For instance, it’s reasonable to assume that the huge increase in hybrid and home working may have led staff to feel greater pressure to continue working while ill at home, when before they may simply have not come into work. Of course, sickness absence may solely be due to physical ill health rather than poor mental wellbeing. However, if an employee experiencing poor mental health doesn’t feel that they can declare themselves sick or take sick leave, this will only put more pressure on their mental wellbeing.

Presenteeism happens for many reasons. For instance, when working from home, people may feel they need to always be ‘present’ to allay any suspicions or fears that they aren’t being productive or might even be shirking even while feeling ill. Also, for many home workers, the boundaries between work and home-life (including the length and timing of work hours), have become blurred, making it harder to switch off from work, and further encouraging people to struggle on while ill.

Presenteeism and leavism may also be influenced and driven by the actions of leaders. So, if a manager or leader works while ill or on holiday, or makes light of themselves or others doing so, this is likely to trickle down as a perceived management expectation, making others feel guilty if they do not follow suit.

Reduce the risk of stress-related ill health at work

When it comes to reducing the risk of employees suffering work-related mental health problems (and supporting employees who are experiencing poor mental health, whether or not it is caused or aggravated by work), the starting point for an employer is to understand their legal duties.

In essence, employers have a duty under UK health and safety law to assess the risk of employees experiencing poor mental health as a result of stress at work (including if work is aggravating a pre-existing mental health condition). If a risk of poor mental health caused or aggravated by work factors is present, they must take steps to remove or reduce the risk as far as is reasonably practicable.

Also, to comply with the Equality Act 2010, employers must take all reasonable steps to remove or reduce any disadvantages a disabled person could face in doing their job because of the disability. The duty to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for disabled workers (such as changes to the workplace or working arrangements), also applies if the worker has a mental health problem that is considered a disability under the Equality Act.

Workers need to believe that the organisation actually cares about their mental wellbeing – and it is not just a tick-box exercise. Photograph: iStock

Employers must ensure that disabled workers are not treated less favourably than those without a disability, or treated unfavourably because of something that arises from the disability. For example, an employer must not treat a disabled person unfavourably if they are required to take absence from work as a result of the disability.

However, when it comes to ways of practically reducing the risk of workers experiencing poor mental health (whether caused by work or not), and providing adequate support for staff who are experiencing a mental health problem so they can either remain in or return to work, employers need to do much more than merely seek to comply with the law.

Achieving basic legal compliance may be enough to prevent an employer being taken to an employment tribunal – for example, if they fail to make reasonable adjustments to remove any disadvantages preventing a worker with a mental health condition that is classed as disability from being able to do their job. However, it will not be enough to adequately support good worker wellbeing and ensure good employer/employee relations.

Fundamentally, the key to reducing the risk of workers suffering work-related mental ill health – and providing adequate support to those with mental health problems so they can continue to thrive at work – is the organisation’s culture.

An employer can have many amazing initiatives and support mechanisms in place but they simply will not be effective unless workers feel the employer is genuinely committed to tackling the work-related causes of poor mental health.

Workers also need to feel they will be believed and supported if they disclose they are suffering problems such as work-related stress, poor mental wellbeing or a mental health condition like depression or anxiety. Therefore, employers must have a clear and consistent framework for managing mental health that is embedded into all working practices and policies.

It’s reasonable to assume that the huge increase in hybrid and home working may have led staff to feel greater pressure to continue working while ill at home. Photograph: iStock

Practical ways of supporting good mental heath

So how can an employer achieve this? Here are some practical tips and points to consider:

  • Think how you could demonstrate that it is okay to talk about mental health. For example, having video interviews, podcasts etc with people (including senior leaders), about their own issues can really help others to feel comfortable disclosing problems like work-related stress or poor mental health. This will enable the employer to try to tackle any root causes at work, support the individual to get help and make adjustments to reduce the pressure on them at work.
  • Spend time to properly understand where the risk of stress-related poor mental health from work activities and possible mental health issues caused or aggravated by work may arise. Absence data, risk assessments that consider work-related stress, staff surveys, one-to-one meetings between managers and staff, and exit interviews, can all provide valuable information to build a picture of the extent of problems like stress. This will enable the organisation to develop a proper plan and framework for tackling the problem and reducing the risk of poor mental health. The strategy should then be continuously maintained and updated. For instance, home working can have a negative impact on employees’ work-related stress levels and mental wellbeing (for example, if workers do not receive adequate support from their managers and colleagues they can feel isolated, which can affect their stress levels). Therefore, an employer should keep track of the impact of home and hybrid working on the mental wellbeing of staff and adjust and add support as required.

  • Spend time looking at other aspects of the business culture that could either support good mental health or actively discourage it. A good example is the link between mental health and a ‘speak up’ culture. People will generally not disclose problems like unmanageable work-related stress or poor mental health if it feels psychologically unsafe to do so. This could be because (for example), they fear they will be viewed as being unable to do their job, will be treated differently or nothing will be done to support them or to make changes to reduce their stress levels and enable them to remain in work and to improve their mental wellbeing. For example, employers could ensure that mental health and wellbeing is always explored in one-to-one meetings, appraisals, team meetings and company-wide discussions.

  • Measures to support the mental health of staff should form part of a wider strategy to support the physical and mental wellbeing of the workforce. For example, this might include taking steps to support the financial wellbeing of staff (such as providing training on managing personal finances, which can be a source of stress), and providing help and support to employees who are parents of young children, who could be affected by the challenges of childcare. For example, regular training on topics such as how healthy eating can improve our sense of wellbeing and mood, and how to ensure good quality sleep for the children of employees can benefit workers’ mental wellbeing without being specifically about ‘mental health’.

  • Directors, managers and supervisors should be given adequate training so they can support and lead on mental health. For instance, managers need training so that their own management style supports mental wellbeing (for example, by setting realistic deadlines and regularly checking how staff are coping and feeling about their work). Also, directors and managers need to be seen as genuinely approachable and sympathetic. Of course, the human resources team will no doubt be heavily involved in implementing any policies and measures to support mental health but the organisation’s leaders must clearly demonstrate that they are the ultimate sponsor and backer of the programme. Workers need to believe that the organisation actually cares about their mental wellbeing – and it is not just a tick-box exercise.

  • Provide mental health awareness training to all levels of staff. For example, managers should be trained in how to spot the common signs and symptoms of mental ill health; how best to approach and talk to a team member who may be experiencing poor mental health; knowing the support the organisation could offer the individual and how to signpost them to it (such as the employee assistance programme); and being aware of the changes the business could make to support the individual at work. In addition, staff will generally benefit from training on issues like spotting the signs that they or someone they know may be experiencing mental ill health, what they as individuals can do to improve and maintain positive mental health and who they can approach if they need advice or support.

  • Consider training staff to become mental health first aiders. Generally speaking, mental health first aiders are trained to reassure and support a person suffering distress or a mental health crisis – for example, by guiding them to further professional support, such as their GP, and listening in a non-judgemental way so the person feels respected and understood.

  • Remember that good communication on the steps the organisation is taking to support employee mental health is pivotal to the success of the programme. Carefully plan how any wellbeing initiatives will be rolled out and ensure there is regular communication and awareness-raising activities around mental health. Ways of achieving this include running regular information campaigns aimed at removing any stigma about mental health problems and highlighting the help available to staff. Finding the right way of reaching people – and continuing to do so – is key.

Simon Stephen is Legal director, Employment & Equalities Team at Gowling WLG law firm

Contact Gowling WLG law firm at: gowlingwlg.com

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