Many employers deal with physical illness on a weekly or even daily basis, but are they as confident when it comes to identifying and supporting employees suffering from mental illness?
Dismantling the taboos around mental illness and raising awareness through events like Mental Health Awareness Week (13-19 May 2019) is absolutely essential and should be whole-heartedly welcomed.
But it is equally important for employers to understand how to spot the signs of mental illness and to understand their role in supporting and managing employees.
The first thing to say is that, just as with any illness, the employer’s focus should be on how they can best support their employee to attend work and perform their role.
The earlier an employer becomes aware that a member of their team is experiencing mental ill health, the sooner they can take positive action to help prevent the problems becoming more serious.
The signs to look out for include:
- Changes in behaviour, mood or the standard of work
- Seeming anxious or withdrawn
- Increases in smoking, drinking or sickness absence
Some people do not show obvious signs and, in fact, rather than periods of sickness absence, feel a duty to turn up for work regardless, sometimes working even longer hours than usual, even when the employer can see that they are not fit. We call this presenteeism.
Knowing how to broach mental illness with an employee can seem difficult but it is better not to avoid tricky conversations, but to arrange a meeting as soon as possible.
Try to approach the conversation in a positive and supportive way, allowing the employee to talk and be listened to. Try to identify potential solutions and, if necessary, adjourn the meeting to think through what you’ve been told before you make a decision.
If your employee doesn’t want to open up about what they are experiencing, let them know that you are available for them to talk to at any time and that they can talk to you about anything that might be on their mind.
Mental illness can be considered a disability if it has a long-term (at least 12 months), substantial adverse effect on an employee’s ability to carry out day-to-day activities.
In these circumstances you should refer your employee to an occupational health specialist who will give a steer as to whether your employee’s mental ill health should be considered a disability and what reasonable adjustments you should make to help them attend work and carry out their job.
If an employee is absent from work for a period of time due to mental illness, you should follow all the usual procedures to support them while they are away from work including:
- Agreeing how regular contact will be maintained
- Being positive and supportive and encouraging a phased return
- Using occupational health to look at ways that you can support the employee’s return to work
An absent employee might request no contact, but it is important that you make arrangements to maintain contact. If the manager could be a factor in the mental ill health, arrange for another manager or HR to make regular contact instead.