Supporting employees with mental health issues

Sam Wilson  |  May 15, 2019

It’s estimated that around a quarter of all adults in the UK will experience mental health issues at some point in their lives. Whilst in 2019 we can say the stigma of mental health is gradually falling away, there is still a considerable way to go when it comes to educating society about the various forms of mental illness and the implications for those experiencing them.

This is especially true when it comes to the workplace. Whilst awareness has undoubtedly risen, some employers still do not place the same importance on mental health as they might do for physical health or sickness. The facts are that mental health issues can have as much of an impact on an individual’s abilities to perform even the most basic of tasks, let alone cope with the pressures that come with any job. This is can be magnified if they feel that their employer doesn’t understand, accept or even care what they’re going through.

There are a number of reasons that, as an employer and a business, you should be committed to supporting your employees with mental health issues. Firstly, mental health is protected under the Equality Act 2010, meaning that any individual who feels that they have been discriminated against or treated unfairly as a result of their mental health can take legal action against their employer. It’s also estimated that around 13% of sick days can be attributed to mental health and providing better support for mental health in the workplace could save UK businesses up to £8 billion per year.

On top of this, any protection, support or assistance that you provide for your employees will be paid back ten-fold in terms of their commitment, effort and dedication. On the flip side of this, employees that don’t feel they have the support and understanding of their employer are unlikely to stay with them for very long – and if they do, you can be assure that their productivity and commitment are going to be somewhat lacking.

I can speak from personal experience having experienced anxiety issues for much of my adult life. The times when it has been at its worst have had a huge impact on my ability to perform to my fullest and I’ve had wildly different experiences with different employers. Some of have provided significant support and showed genuine care and concern for my wellbeing, others have made me feel that my condition was a burden on them and any help I needed an inconvenience. I’m sure it won’t be hard for you to guess which I gave my all for and which lost my loyalty.

With all this in mind, how can you better support your employees with mental health issues?

Educate yourself

The more you understand about mental health and how it impacts those experiencing any issues, the better placed you will be to support your people.

A huge part of the stigma around mental health is the various misconceptions and misunderstandings around the simply massive range of conditions and the differences between them.

There are more than 200 classified forms that generally fall into seven categories. The most common conditions include depression, bipolar disorder, dementia, schizophrenia and anxiety, with each having different common impacts on the individual and the extent of the impact differing from person to person.

Possibly the best thing that you can do for your people to help them during any form of mental illness is develop your own understanding and that of your management team. One of the most damaging aspects of mental illness can be the feeling of isolation, alienation or not being understood. If your team feel like they have leaders that understand the issues they are facing and the effects they might be experiencing then this will make a massive difference.

Build a culture where it’s ok to talk about mental health

The social stigma around mental health is undoubtedly gradually being broken down, however there is still some way to go. National campaigns have highlighted the importance of being able to talk about mental health problems as when people feel forced to hide the issues they’re battling with, the impact can become significantly more severe.

A positive open culture where mental health can be discussed freely is one where those experiencing any issues can seek the help and support they need. It also encourages others to develop their own understanding and offer help to others. Whilst some won’t ever feel comfortable speaking about their own experiences, others will be very keen to in order to raise awareness. Providing these people with a platform to tell their stories will not only serve to educate those around them but will also let others with mental health conditions know that they’re not alone. Company or team meetings, newsletters or workshops are great opportunities to do this.

Companies leading the way in employee mental health support have launched initiatives where people have volunteered as mental health ‘first aiders’ who are available for anyone having any kind of issue to go to for help.

Organisations that are willing to invest time, resource and money into raising awareness and starting the conversations about mental health often see significant drops in sickness and productivity levels rise. Simply knowing that help is available and that they don’t need to keep their problems a secret will have a huge impact.

Help take the pressure off

In the majority of cases, work, by its very nature, brings pressure along with it. Unfortunately, pressure is likely to heighten or increase the effects of mental health conditions. Now, no one is expecting any employer to forego their business objectives or performance in order to make life easy for their employees. However, if you approach it in the right way, you can relieve some of the pressure that will help your people perform to the level that you need them to.

A further benefit of an open culture where your people feel comfortable talking about their mental health is that it provides you with the opportunity to find out what they need from you to do their jobs. It might be that their condition makes it hard for them to get out of bed in the morning and that flexible hours where they can start later and finish later would help them massively. It could be that the freedom to work from home on the days that they don’t feel up to facing all of their colleagues will boost their ability to meet deadlines as it won’t mean that their productivity levels drop on these days.

Some organisations have taken it beyond individual needs and imposed company-wide initiatives such as banning work emails after 7pm – meaning that all staff can take a break from work and not worry about anything coming in until the following morning.

Not all of these things will work for you but exploring things that you could do in order to take the pressure off will not only help those experiencing mental health issues but also potentially prevent further issues developing as a result of pressure and stress.

These are just a few examples of ways that you can support your people. For those looking to find out more about the impact of mental health and how they can better place themselves to help their employees, charities such as Mind, Calm and Mental Health UK provide a fantastic range of services.

Mental Health Awareness Week does such great things in helping those experiencing all manner of challenges and educating those around them. However, let’s ensure that it goes beyond that and all year-round people have access to the support they need and see work as a safe space where they are understood, accepted and looked after.  

You can stay up to date with all the great things happening this Mental Health Awareness Week by following the hashtag #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek on Twitter.