Frequently asked questions
Mental health at work: FAQs for employers
Line managers play an important role in supporting employees to do their job effectively. Part of that role is exercising the employers’ duty of care to staff and working with colleagues to manage mental health issues at work.
1. How will I recognise if someone is stressed or experiencing poor mental health at work?
There are many signs that you, or other colleagues, may notice. These may include changes in the person's demeanour – becoming upset more easily or withdrawing from others or activities.
Relationships between team members may be affected and line managers need to be prepared to listen carefully to concerns raised by others about the person's behaviour, moods or performance and be prepared to address concerns sensitively with the person.
Time-keeping, attendance, staying late at work, missing deadlines or conversely taking on too much work and feeling unable to say no may indicate that the manager needs to intervene.
2. Where and how can I raise issues with someone?
Many managers relate that they don't want to make things worse or cause more stress for the person. The clear message here is that it is important to choose an appropriate time and neutral place where there is privacy. It is also important to be specific about your concerns and ensure that the person knows you want to help and support them and that it is part of the line manager role to offer support when needed. Normal one-to-ones or appraisal meetings can be used, or a chat over the water cooler may provide a safe space to ask how things are going. This can be followed up by a more formal meeting if needed.
The focus should be on the impact on work in the first instance. Asking "how can I help you at work?" is a good opener and sets a supportive environment, focusing on your managerial responsibilities to help someone to carry out their duties. You can also reinforce that managers are there to help with any work problems and they need to know if work is a contributing factor to stress and mental ill health.
3. What if the person is reluctant to talk to me or admit there is a problem?
Employees may be reluctant to talk for a variety of reasons. They may be worried about the repercussions, afraid to open up a difficult and emotional area of their life or not feel the need to disclose personal or health information to a manager. However, the manager can legitimately ask about performance if it is affected or explain about the duty of care employers have to ensure staff safety and wellbeing at work.
Employees may not be aware that there are human resources, occupational health or support services available. It may be that the manager needs to make the person aware that they are there to help them to do their job – not to pry into personal information – and encourage the person to think about whether they could do with some support. This leaves the door open for future discussions.
4. What if I am seriously concerned about someone I manage?
You may need to call on others for guidance, such as your own line manager, your human resources team or occupational health. Discuss the situation with the most relevant person and ask for guidance if you feel that you need to deal with an urgent situation at work to get someone help.
Fortunately it is rare that someone needs urgent mental health support at work but if you are seriously concerned then you could encourage them to see a GP – or arrange for someone to go with them. Alternatively, you may need to call for an ambulance or, if the person is known to mental health services, they may have a crisis card that has contact details for someone they trust who can arrange the necessary support. As for someone with a serious physical illness eg diabetes or epilepsy, people with recognised recurring mental health conditions can make arrangements in advance with their manager should they become unwell at work. This ensures they get the best help and support according to their wishes.
5. What do I tell the rest of the team if I am offering support that impacts on them?
Confidentiality applies to information about the person's medical condition, treatment and health circumstances. Team members may ask about the person and it is helpful to have had a discussion about what the person wants the team to know. By reassuring staff that you, as the manager, are aware of the situation and are willing to address any work concerns they may have, you can effectively get the message across that you respect all team members’ privacy whilst maintaining control of the situation.
However, the impact on the team of any adjustments made to support the person do need to be managed effectively through normal management structures.
6. What tools are there to help me as a manager?
If your company has policies and procedures for recruitment, managing sickness absence and return to work then these should be followed. Many companies have devised stress/risk assessments that are filled in by the manager with the person following a period of absence from work or after an incident. These are mainly based on the six standards for the management of stress at work set out by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The HSE website contains helpful forms that managers can use pro-actively (as wellbeing assessments) or reactively (to plan actions to support someone who has a recognised mental health issue).
Wellbeing assessments can be used in annual appraisals and can be a useful way of engaging staff who otherwise wouldn't talk about their wellbeing. They also give managers a written record of conversations and any actions agreed to take forward. This is helpful, as busy managers can't record every conversation but might find it useful to have a joint agreed record of any discussions and future plans when reviewing staff records.
7. What are employers’ legal duties to staff with mental ill health?
Under the Equality Act 2010, it is illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of their disability and employers have duties to people who have a disability to enable them to do their job.
A disabled person is counted as one whose everyday activities are affected by their condition for 12 months or more. However, employers cannot predict who will be affected for 12 months and good practice dictates that employers need to do the right thing to support their employee and offer the appropriate support in a timely fashion. With GPs giving fit notes and encouraging employees to think about what they can do, employers need to be responsive, imaginative and flexible in arranging support.
If someone has a recognised disability employers have to consider any request for a reasonable adjustment they could make to enable someone to do their job or to progress through the organisation. Human resources, occupational health and line managers need to work together to make arrangements and set a system of review to see if the adjustment is working. If the adjustment cannot be made then the reasons should be given clearly in writing and it is important to maintain a dialogue to explore options.
The test for 'reasonableness' includes:
How effective is the adjustment likely to be?
Is it practical?
How much will it cost?
Will it cause much disruption?
How will the adjustment impact on others?
Many adjustments for mental health conditions are about flexible working practices and access to supportive services rather than expensive technology. Working with human resources departments is key to helping employers to meet their legal requirements.
The Mindful Employer web site has some very useful information: their ‘Feeling stressed, keeping well’ booklet comes with an accompanying workbook that employees can share with managers if they want to.
Time to Change has a range of resources that managers can use with their teams to encourage discussion about wellbeing at work and reinforce messages about how to look after your own and others wellbeing at work.
Five Areas Limited aims to provide high quality, accessible resources that help people to help themselves using award-winning, practical Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) treatment tools. They work with individuals, services and businesses, delivering service change/ redesign, training, online life skills resources and consultancy. There are some excellent self-help booklets available from the five areas website that can be useful to have as a resource for teams at work.
The Health and Safety Executive website contains useful information for employers on mental health and workplace stress.
More training and resources