What FDs should know about managing mental health issues in the workplace

By Hannah Ford, Partner at Stevens & Bolton

Employee mental health is a balance sheet issue, which has steadily risen up the agenda of the FD. Stress is now the largest cause of long term absence in the workplace, and together with other mental health conditions, is estimated to cost UK companies over £30 billion annually in terms of lost working days, sick pay, staff turnover and lack of productivity.

Workers with a recognised and long-term mental health impairment are protected from discrimination under the Equality Act, with employers legally obliged to make adjustments to alleviate the impact of any disadvantage. Employers have separate obligations under the health and safety at work legislation to assess the risk of stress related conditions. But what are the most common misconceptions of employers and FDs in dealing with conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression in the workplace?

Firstly, there is nothing to be gained by looking the other way. Employers can be liable for discrimination on grounds of disability where they could reasonably be expected to be aware that an employee is suffering from a disability or where they fail to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace. Where an employee is noticeably ‘burnt out’, or is behaving in a withdrawn manner, or is aggressive, volatile or visibly over stressed, employers should address the issue.  FDs can assist in consciously upskilling senior management to tackle what is often a taboo subject so as to create a culture of openness, not silence. For example, managers could be trained in choosing an appropriate time and place to sensitively speak with a struggling employee about any signs of mental distress so they can seek support. An example are businesses who identify a ‘mental health champion’ who employees can approach in confidence with mental health issues and who is trained to deal with such issues sensitively.

Where an employee is signed off work on grounds of stress, employers commonly assume that they need space to recover without any disturbance from their colleagues. Every case is different, however; leaving the employee in a communications vacuum can in fact be counterproductive and lead him or her feeling ostracised, making a return to work seem even more daunting.  In the majority of cases employers can and should maintain reasonable contact with an employee on long term sick leave so as to reassure them that the workplace has not ‘moved on’ immeasurably in their absence and support their reintegration. One way of achieving this is to empower managers to informally maintain contact with an employee by volunteering casual catch up meetings.   

Despite the prevalence of mental health issues in the workplace, employees still fear they will be stigmatised if they disclose a stress or mental health condition and that it will impact negatively impact on their career and its progression.  Employers have a duty of care which can involve sharing with senior management and others the fact that an employee is or may be disabled so that additional support can be offered or adjustments made. It is important that the employer identifies with the employee at the outset who any confidential information will be shared with, so that trust can be built.

It is no longer seen as an ‘innovative’ HR strategy to been seen to mitigate the risk of stress claims in the workplace – strategies for building and supporting employee resilience are common place. FDs can play a central part in this – be it through facilitating a culture of openness and de-stigmatisation, putting in place support mechanisms and training senior management to spot the signs or triggers of stress or mental ill health and act on them.