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Written by
on 19 July 2017


Despite continued awareness campaigns, mental illness still remains a taboo subject in the workplace. Read on.

Mental illness remains one of the hardest subjects for employers and employees to tackle effectively. Unlike most afflictions, people tend to think they can ignore mental health, carrying on as normal in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” type arrangement. For some employers, it is easier just to ignore mental health problems, hoping that workers will simply “get better” quickly.

Back in 2005, it was believed that stress, depressions and anxiety cost the UK economy 12.8 million working days. Literally, billions of pounds are being lost every year to mental illness – and the issue is expected to get worse. The World Health Organisation published estimates suggesting that depression will be the second most common cause of disability in the world by 2020.

The fact is that the effects of mental illness are hugely underestimated. One estimate published by the Department of Health suggests that nearly 30% of your employees will have a mental health problem of some sort this year. One-third of workers, struggling with illness every year.

As a result, employers need to re-evaluate their mental health provisions now – there’s a very good chance that at least one of their employees is struggling right now.

A legal duty

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers have a legal duty to protect all of their employees. This means making provisions for workers struggling with mental illness, and implementing safeguards for their colleagues.

At this point the Equality Act 2010 comes into play, requiring you to make all reasonable efforts to help that employee at work. Which means you cannot simply sideline them, or push them into a lesser role in the hope that they leave.

Add mental health to your workplace monitoring routines

Often the symptoms of mental illness are very subtle –, particularly in the early stages. The earlier these issues are identified, however, the sooner your workers can get help.

Encourage line managers to look for signs that something might be wrong – problems sleeping, appetite issues or increased alcohol intake for instance. Workers also need to know that they can ask for help if they run into problems. Sometimes this openness is enough to stave off low-level anxiety and stress.

You will also need to work with your HR department to draw up a plan to deal with mental illness issues when they arise. Can you provide workplace counselling? How will you support employees who do have an illness? And how will you monitor their progress towards recovery? Is there a third party who may be able to assist our employee?

Time off to recover

Where the employee is struggling to the point that they are unable to perform their role adequately, you must give them time off to recover. Ideally, this should coincide with intervention by their GP or other health professional.

You may be tempted to leave your employee to their own devices while they are signed off sick – don’t. You must actively engage them, offering advice, assessing their fitness, and collaborating on a plan to manage their return to work. You should not pressure them about personal medical information, or ask them to name a date for their return – doing so may increase their levels of anxiety and delay their return.

Back to work

Once they have received the go-ahead to return to work, or have declared themselves suitably fit, you must bring the return plan into effect. This will help you and your employee manage the transition, and to understand what is expected of both parties. They are unlikely to be 100% fit, so try phasing their return with shorter days, or simpler tasks to help ease them back into the workplace.

You must also actively monitor the worker as they go about their job. This is not to catch them when they make a mistake, but to identify further improvements or additional resources that will aid their recovery. They may have also been prescribed medication whose side effects impact on their abilities.

Remember this monitoring must take place because you have a legal duty to ensure employees are not made unwell by their job.

What if there is a major problem?

Less than 1 in 100 people will experience the more severe forms of mental illness (psychosis, schizophrenia etc), but there is always a chance your employees may be in that tiny minority.

In the event of a serious mental health-related incident, you must consider the welfare of your other employees too. If you are unable to calm someone down, or you are concerned that they may injure themselves or others, you must contact NHS Direct, or call an ambulance immediately.

Where the illness is severe, you will have to follow the directions of the employee’s doctor, and liaise with HR to discuss long term prospects.

A very good chance of recovery

Fortunately, most employees do make a good recovery from mental illness. In most cases, recovery can be accelerated by seeking the right treatment at the right time – with the full support of the employer for their affected workers.

To learn more about mental health first aid in the workplace, and what your business can do to help employees, please get in touch.

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A chartered (fellow) safety and risk management practitioner with 20+ years of experience. David provides a healthy dose of how-to articles, advice and guidance to make compliance easier for construction professionals, Architects and the built environment. Get social with David on Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.

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