How to Manage an Employee with Poor Mental Health

How to Manage an Employee with Poor Mental Health

Managing employees with mental health issues can be complex at the best of times and poor mental health can be a significant worry for employers because of the lost hours of productivity and increased staff turnover. It also presents itself as a significant factor in absence days – more than half of all working days lost in the UK as a result of health reasons are due to mental health. There are well established links between poor physical and mental health. We look at how to manage an employee with poor mental health. 

Most employers do have a strong grasp on the importance of good mental health. However, there are often quite a few managers who still only receive scant training on these issues and as a direct result feel uncomfortable and uncertain when it comes to managing employees who suffer from mental ill health. Managing mental health in the workplace training is something which can help give clarity on issues such as these and other areas.

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

There’s never going to be a catch-all solution for problems of this nature, but there are some things that an employer can do to try and manage the situation as best they can in order to get the best positive outcome as possible.

1. Be clear on your obligations

It’s perfectly understandable that some employers might feel a bit unclear about how much they can/should support their staff. There’s still a slight taboo around disclosing personal mental health problems. But the bottom line is still that employers are responsible for helping employees with work-related stress. Their legal obligations are to assess the risk of stress related ill health arising from work activities and to take reasonable care of employees’ health and safety. Therefore, employers should be mindful of risk factors and manage these appropriately where possible:

  • Unrealistic expectations and deadlines.
  • Lack of control in workload.
  • Long hours.
  • Lone working.
  • Change of management.
  • Job insecurity

In addition, some mental health issues qualify as a disability under the Equality Act which then brings us onto the concept of ‘reasonable adjustments’ that an employer is obliged to make in the workplace. To a certain degree, this will depend on how the employee is affected, but there are some common changes that come up more often than others. These include:

  • Working different hours.
  • Being given a reduced workload.
  • Implementing a phased return after a long absence.
  • Providing the employee with a personal mentor.

There’s also a slightly grey area where mental health issues have not been disclosed and yet the employer still suspects that they might be an issue. Basically, an employer should reasonable steps and have systems in place to find out what the problem might be. Obviously there will be issues surrounding privacy that will need to be carefully managed. Employers need to give their employees opportunities to explain the reasons for their actions/dips in performance-related tasks and if health problems are mentioned as part of this they should be taken into account and further investigation done before a decision is reached. Managing mental health in the workplace training will cover this as part of the core course content.

2. Take proactive steps

When it comes to mental health problems, prevention rather than cure is a very important concept. Employers should take preventative steps where they can to try and proactively employees and actually prevent problems from occurring. These can include:

  • Checking in with the employee regularly. Schedule catch-ups with the individual and as a part of the team. If the person concerned is working remotely then it might be prudent to increase the frequency of these.
  • Creating a positive atmosphere which means that the employee feels able to ask for help when needed; another key preventative tool.
  • Encourage employees to access resources and support tools available to them.
  • Encourage a positive work/life balance. For example, it might be easier for an employee to work longer hours and take fewer breaks when they are working from home. If they are office based then encouraging them to take breaks where needed is appropriate in order to look after their own wellbeing.
  • Appoint mental health ‘first-aiders’. In addition to increased support, this would enable problems to be spotted earlier and employees signposted to the appropriate support.

3. Look for triggers

Understandably, it can be very difficult to spot when someone is struggling, especially in the work environment when people tend to mask how they’re feeling for the sake of professionalism. And this is why it’s important to be alert for clues, such as:

  • Uncharacteristic problems with colleagues.
  • Working longer hours.
  • A change in their working pattern.
  • Short term absences.
  • Long term absences.

4. Keep the lines of communication open

If mental health issues are disclosed then it’s very important to ensure that the employee feels both safe and listened to. Don’t brush off or shy away from any issues that are raised. Likewise, listen carefully to any concerns which are brought up by others regarding the individual. However, don’t feel that you have to offer immediate solutions, this isn’t about acute management, rather it’s making sure that the situation is improved/managed long term. It is important that you look at all ways of how to manage an employee with poor mental health. 

5. Have a robust performance management process in place

It’s very common to have poor mental health coming hand in hand with performance issues. When you’re managing employees with mental health illness/problems it’s important to still follow performance management procedures. If issues crop up regarding mental health then managers need to adjust the process so it remains fair, e.g. allowing friends/family members into meetings so the employee doesn’t have the stress of advocating for themselves alone. Often, having quiet support in the background is enough for them to feel that they can cope. But, when a situation is being assessed it’s vital to consider whether or not outside medical opinion is needed; this is more commonly required if the employee is suffering from a more severe psychiatric diagnosis, such as bipolar affective disorder. An example of a fair performance management process is:

  • An initial consultation with the employee.
  • A medical investigation, including input from their GP and/or occupational health where appropriate.
  • Considering re-deployment within the organisation.
  • Making any necessary reasonable adjustments.

Ultimately, no employer can be expected to have all of the answers, no matter how empathetic they are. Mental health issues can be a very complex thing to work with. So, remember: 

  • Prioritise communication and don’t gloss over any issues.
  • Make sure that you have comprehensive and fair processes in place.
  • Don’t be afraid to seek further advice from outside organisations, should you need it e.g. PMAC and NHS.

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