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Managing mental health at work

Fiona Harper, Head of Employment Affairs SELECT

Stress and mental health issues are all-too-common problems in today's busy work environments – but there are measures we can all take to support sufferers and reduce the stigma

Mental health problems were responsible for 11.7 million days lost from work in 2015/16, making it the leading cause of absence in the workplace.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), work-related stress costs employers about £2.8 billion a year, and 37 per cent of all work related ill health cases and 45 per cent of all working days lost are due to work related stress.

Furthermore, a Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD) study found that:

  • 37 per cent of sufferers are more likely to get into conflict with colleagues.

  • 57 per cent find it hard to juggle multiple tasks.

  • 80 per cent find it hard to concentrate.

  • 62 per cent take longer to do tasks.

  • 50 per cent are less patient with customers/clients.

The study also found that, for the first time, stress is now the major cause of long-term absence in manual and non-manual workers.

Thankfully, public attitudes towards mental health are improving. Research indicates that people are more willing to live, work and enter into a relationship with someone who has experienced a mental health issue.

That said, in the work environment, many employers still have great difficulty in conducting a sensitive and meaningful dialogue with those employees suffering stress related problems.

Work-related stress is not usually classed as an illness, but the psychological impact of it can give rise to anxiety and depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. What’s more, stress has also been linked to physical health issues such as heart disease, back pain, as well as gastrointestinal problems.

Stress is an adverse reaction to excessive pressure, and while a little stress is often motivating, it can sometimes reach levels that are too high for a person to cope with.

A mental health condition can be classed as a disability if it has a considerable and lasting effect on a person’s capabilities in terms of carrying out day-to-day activities. This is defined in the Equality Act 2010 as having lasted, or is expected to last, more than one year. Attempting to dismiss an employee for having such a condition will amount to direct disability discrimination.

This is why it is vital to find ways to help employees to manage their mental health. It is up to the employer to put into place reasonable adjustments in order to prevent the employee from being put at a disadvantage because of their disability.

As the main symptom of a stressed-out workforce is absence, looking at your absence records is the place to begin in understanding how stress is affecting your employees. The key to effective absence management is early intervention. Effective channels of communication, including return to work discussions, are paramount in determining the nature of the problem and how to achieve a positive outcome.

In some circumstances, it may be advisable to find a more suitable, alternative role, thus allowing the employee to keep working in an effective manner. This might require a change to the terms and conditions of his/her employment, affecting both duties and pay.

As the employer, you need to ensure that your managers are capable of responding to signs of stress. This requires training to spot issues with performance or problems such as workplace bullying.

Training can also help managers to be more effective in carrying out the difficult conversations that these issues require and in creating a culture where employees feel that they can openly talk about mental health issues.

In short – making sure that those suffering stress receive the right kind of understanding and support, even for things that happen outside the workplace, is paramount in enabling your employees to perform at their best.

Ultimately, fostering an environment of open discussion on these subjects will also help lessen the stigma which, in turn, will help make people less prone to stress-related health issues.

Fiona Harper, Head of Employment Affairs SELECT

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