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17 Jun 2019

Q&A: Workplace mental health

Stress, anxiety and depression account for more than half of all workplace absence, so it’s essential employers find practical ways to support their staff. Here’s a handy Q&A from our media team on ways to create supportive workplaces and help staff with their mental health problems.

Too much stress at work

What advice you have for employees needing to speak to their manager about their mental health?

Being able to cope with certain levels of stress is an important sign of good mental health, but too much stress at your place of work can have a detrimental effect. Long working hours, heavy workloads, poor or insufficient resources, and difficulties with co-workers or managers can all undermine your wellbeing over time. 

Navigating this when you are under pressure can be extremely challenging, but the risks of saying or doing nothing if you feel your mental health is deteriorating is potentially much greater than speaking out.

First, you need to judge who might be the best person to speak to if you feel the stress of your work is becoming too much. That might be a colleague, line manager or HR department (if you work in a large firm). Try to be specific about what exactly it is you are finding difficult, and try to find workable solutions that take account of the needs of your employer.

None of this is necessarily easy, but a good employer should understand that happy staff tend to be more productive, which is good for the company or organisation you work for as well as for you.

If you feel your mental health is suffering to the point where it is affecting your ability to live your life, and this lasts for more than a couple of weeks, you should also consider speaking to your doctor about getting support and treatment.

UK workplace stats

Looking out for each other

How can you educate staff to spot the first signs of mental ill-health amongst colleagues? What should they do about it if they have suspicions?

Being aware of some of the common signs can be very helpful, although every person’s experience of a mental health problem is different and there may be no noticeable sign.

Some of the clues that a person may be experiencing a mental health problem include changes in how they interact with colleagues or customers, reduced motivation or productivity, and appearing withdrawn or tired. An employee may, for example, remove themselves slowly from their social group, or be quieter than usual.

When someone is worried about a colleague then they can ask this person, again in a supportive way and in a private location, about how they are and be there to listen.

How should an employee be approached if an employer feels they are suffering from a mental health problem?

If an employer feels someone in their team is suffering from a mental health problem in silence then they should take the lead and sit down with them, ideally as an informal chat at the first stage. They should approach this chat in a supportive and positive way by asking open questions and by, most importantly, listening to what the employee has to say. One of the key things to avoid is making assumptions and prematurely escalating the situation in a formal capacity, eg referral to a HR department.

Workplace mental health awareness

Are there any preventative measures to ensure an employee gets help as soon as possible?

Work can be a big source of stress in a person’s life, so it’s important for employers to regularly ask staff how they are managing to give them the confidence and opportunity to speak up. Creating a culture where staff feel empowered to speak up early can be one of the greatest preventative measures of mental health problems deteriorating. We know the longer people leave getting help for a mental health problem, the worse it can become.

Do you feel mental health champions are essential in the workplace?

Mental health champions can provide information, training and reassurance to staff about mental health awareness. A company’s commitment to this can demonstrate to workers that each individual’s wellbeing is cared for and considered.

What can workplaces do to make things easier for those suffering from mental ill-health?

Flexible working hours, quiet rooms, mentor schemes, positive feedback and regular one-to-one meetings can all contribute to a workplace that supports people with mental health problems.

Is it important for organisations to offer CBT and other therapies as part of their health and wellbeing strategy?

It can be extremely helpful to offer CBT, counselling and other talking therapies to staff who may benefit. It is worth mentioning, however, that smaller businesses and organisations may not have the same resources as a large company, which may limit what mental health support and treatment they are able to offer their employees. Consulting employees on what they feel they might best benefit from is a good place to start.

Workplaces may also consider offering opportunities for teambuilding as this can be a therapeutic exercise in building trust, resilience and confidence in others.

Providing reasssurance and support

How can you reassure an employee their job is safe? What other worries do you feel they might have by admitting they are suffering from a problem?

Reminding an employee that experiencing a mental health problem is common – it is estimated one in six people are affected by a common mental disorder in any given week – can be a really helpful way to reassure them about their job. There is still a great deal of stigma around admitting a mental health problem and this might be the most overwhelming reason an employee does not want to talk about it.

How should you care for staff returning from work after being signed off? is there a right or wrong way to liaise with them if they’re off on sick leave?

During this leave, employers should stay in touch at agreed times – this could be done face-to-face or over the phone. Often managers think they are intruding, but a lack of meaningful communication during this time can add to the unease about returning to work. Small things like sending a get well soon card as you would for a physical health problem can also mean a great deal during this time.

What aftercare should an employer offer employees when returning to work after absence whether short term or long term?

Employers can care for staff returning to work after being signed off by agreeing a plan with them following a return-to-work interview in a neutral location. This plan should be realistic and flexible, but it should allow for practical steps and adjustments in things like working hours and responsibilities.

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