Each year on 10 October, the World Health Organisation recognises World Mental Health Day. The purpose is to give those working in mental health an opportunity to talk about what they do, and what more needs to be done, to make mental health care a reality for people across the world.

This year, the focus is on mental health in the workplace.

Employers often do not know how best to approach, or support, an employee who is suffering from a mental health illness. They may be nervous about broaching the subject with an employee who is struggling. They may fear that doing so could things worse. The employer may not know how to start the conversation, and may be concerned that when they do, they might accidentally say the wrong thing or worse, breach discrimination legislation.

As a result, many employers simply sit tight in the hope that the individual will “pull themselves together”.

And this kind of bury-your-head-in-the-sand-and-hope-it-goes-away attitude can be far from helpful.

Firstly, it may be in breach of the employer’s duty to take reasonable care of the health and safety of its staff. This obligation is implied into each individual’s employment contract, and is enshrined in the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. It applies to mental health every bit as much as it does to physical health.

Secondly, the case law is clear: an employer is required to take reasonable precautions to protect the health of its employees. So, whilst an employer is not obliged to do everything within its power to prevent injury, it must take reasonable steps to protect its staff.

The reality

The latest statistics on mental health illnesses in the UK are sobering.

At least 1 in 4 of us will experience some kind of mental health problem each year, with anxiety and depression being the most common.

According to Time to Change, nearly 70% of employees would feel scared, embarrassed or unable to talk to their managers if they were suffering from stress.

Their concerns may have some justification, given that over half of UK adults said they would not hire someone with depression, even if they were the best candidate for the job.

According to a recent survey by Mind,

men are more likely to experience work-related mental health problems than women, with only 1 in 3 feeling that they could speak openly about their mental health problems in their place of work (as compared with 2 in 5 women).

That is despite the fact that, in the same survey, 74% of line managers said they felt confident supporting employees with mental health issues. There is, then, a real mismatch between employers’ and employees’ thinking.

Whilst there have undoubtedly been huge strides in mental health care and awareness in recent years, talking about mental health issues can still be incredibly difficult. It is estimated that some 70 million working days are lost each year due to mental health illness, costing businesses around £70-£100bn per annum. Presenteeism (going to work when you are unwell) can double this cost.

The challenge for businesses

Dealing with mental health issues is firmly on the political agenda. Whilst those in Parliament have clashed over mental health policy and how best to make “parity of esteem” a reality rather than a political slogan, it is fair to say that all have expressed an intention to focus on improving mental health support for those who need it.

Coupled with this, and in light of the above statistics, the challenge for businesses is clear: what can be done to help staff? How can employers ensure that mental health issues are identified early in the workplace, and that appropriate support is provided to those who need it? How can employers empower people to talk about their experiences, without fear of being seen as “weak” or “unable to cope”?

Below are some of our top tips for grappling with such questions. Whilst by no means exhaustive, these ideas are intended to encourage employers to think carefully about the mental health and wellbeing of their staff, and identify what they might be able to do to create a supportive working environment.

1. LEAD FROM THE TOP DOWN

Ensure that your senior managers have a real awareness of mental health issues, and know your policies and best practice guidance. If they are able to talk confidently about mental health issues, then employees may be far more comfortable approaching them to discuss problems which they may have.

At Kingsley Napley, we recently hosted a mental health awareness event in conjunction with SANE and facilitated by SANE’s ambassador Rachel Kelly, during which a number of senior partners spoke out about dealing with mental health issues. This led to a great discussion around the table about illnesses people had struggled with, and highlighted just how important it is to raise awareness of this issue by creating opportunities to talk about it openly. It was the “lead from the top down” theory working in practice.

Of course, you can have the best trained managers in the country, but sometimes people will just prefer to speak with a colleague. In such cases, these colleagues should know what support is available, and how to access it…which leads us to Tip No. 2…

2. TRAIN YOUR STAFF PROPERLY

Whilst it is important to ensure that your senior staff members are comfortable talking about mental health issues, it is equally important to ensure that all of your employees:

  • are able to spot when someone might be struggling (perhaps someone is acting uncharacteristically—working very long hours, not arriving on time, not joining colleagues for lunch, skipping meetings or missing deadlines when normally they are reliable…); and
  • know who they can speak to, within your organisation, if they have any concerns about a colleague.

Consider, also, whether staff (or line managers, at the very least) ought to receive Mental Health First Aid training.

3. RAISE MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS ACROSS YOUR BUSINESS

Consider holding “mental health awareness” days, activities or other events throughout the year.

Make sure that your HR representatives and/or senior managers attend these events (if they are not, in fact, the ones leading them). Explain to people that if they need to talk to someone (and do not feel comfortable discussing their issues with their manager), then HR are always available.

Newsletters and bulletins advertising mental health awareness in communal areas (such as kitchens, bathrooms, canteens, or locker rooms) or on your intranet, can help encourage openness in the workplace.

Also, think about using national events like Mental Health Awareness Week (which, next year, will be 7-13 May) or World Mental Health Day (10 October every year) to promote awareness around the office. It can be helpful to team up with mental health charities and organisations too, which can provide further insight and support for these activities. SANE is one of the charities which Kingsley Napley supports, and we worked closely with them during this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, to help raise further awareness of mental health issues.

Such activities may also be a goodwill selling point for clients. Businesses which treat their employees fairly, work hard to promote staff health and wellbeing, and create a positive and supportive working environment are businesses you want to work with.

4. CREATE A GENUINELY OPEN DOOR ATMOSPHERE

Consider having a Mental Health Policy in place (if you do not already have one) and, importantly, use it. Refer to it in meetings, email your staff about it, have a link to it on your intranet.

Policies and procedures provide staff with a degree of certainty, and can help give them the confidence they need to deal with issues as they arise. They can also reassure staff that you have their wellbeing in mind.

Also consider:

  • implementing an Employee Assistance Program;
  • publicising and promoting your occupational health provider around the workplace;
  • holding “drop in” sessions (either with HR, occupational health, or management as appropriate);
  • creating a buddy support system; and/or
  • signing up to the Workplace Wellbeing Index 2017/2018.

As regards the latter, this index is a benchmark of current best policy and practice, enabling employers to assess what they are doing well when dealing with mental health in the workplace, and where there is room for improvement. It also provides recommendations for employers to follow.

5. COMMUNICATION IS KEY

If an employee is away from the office because they are unwell, consider the extent to which keeping in touch is appropriate.

In some cases it may not be, and the individual will need space and time (particularly if work has been a contributing factor in their ill health).

However, in other situations, it may be appropriate to make contact via a family member, friend, or close colleague, or (if the employee feels comfortable doing so) by speaking with the individual themselves.

Continuing to keep the lines of communication open by calling every now and then, or sending an email or text passing on your best wishes can help relieve some of the anxiety associated with returning to work after a mental health illness. It can also help individuals feel engaged and connected with their colleagues (some of whom may be good friends).

As and when the individual returns to work, discuss with them (and any relevant medical practitioner(s) or occupational health) whether a phased return is appropriate and on what terms.

Consider, also, whether any workplace adjustments might be appropriate. For example, it would be worth discussing with the individual whether any of the following might be helpful:

  • any changes to how they perform their role;
  • a flexible working plan;
  • working from home (either in whole or in part);
  • taking time off for medical appointments;
  • providing increased supervision; and/or
  • offering extra support and/or mentoring.

Where an individual is suffering from a health issue (not just a mental health one), employers need to be aware of their obligations under the Equality Act 2010 and the duty to make reasonable adjustments. Not everyone who suffers from a mental health issue will fall within the protection of the Act. However, employers should be sensitive to disability discrimination legislation and seek legal advice.