Mental Health in the Workplace – how organisations can support their employees

Mental Health Awareness Week took place earlier this month from 15th – 21st May. This year’s focus was anxiety, aimed to help raise awareness and understanding of the difference between anxiety and anxiety disorders.

Mental Health UK report that one in ten people (10%) tackle the challenges of living with an anxiety disorder at any one time and people aged between 35-59 are more likely to be affected by an anxiety disorder. Women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder than men. It is a common misconception that people who have anxiety disorders are all just natural worriers – this just isn’t the case. Whilst many live with a constant feeling of anxiety, the condition also affects those who are normally confident and in control. A number of things can trigger episodes of anxiety. (For more information about how to deal with anxiety and anxiety disorders, please visit Mental Health UK’s website.)

The last three years have been difficult for everyone; months of lockdown and the rising cost of living have significantly impacted the mental health of millions of people worldwide.

According to research undertaken by Mind, more than half of adults (60%) and over two thirds of young people (68%) said their mental health got worse during lockdown. As a result of the pandemic, many have developed new mental health problems and for some, existing mental health problems have worsened.

Quality Compliance Systems undertook a survey which discovered that only 14% of 2,000 workers pooled said they felt comfortable discussing their mental health worries at work, compared to 42% of workers who felt able to talk about physical conditions. This suggests that there still appears to be a stigma attached to mental health issues in the workplace. 

We are intrigued as to why. Maybe it’s because of the many misconceptions around mental health? Maybe it’s because HR professionals, managers and work colleagues do not have the confidence to address the issue in the same way they would with, say, a broken arm.   Perhaps it is too unpredictable or complex?  Despite the significant improvements in mental health awareness over recent years, our experience is that dealing with mental health concerns amongst the workforce remains a thorny subject for many organisations and is often swept under the carpet. Clearly something needs to change.

ACAS has recently published new guidance on reasonable adjustments for mental health and how to manage employees with reasonable adjustments relating to their mental health. The full guidance can be found here

We have also set out below a few key pointers to help organisations move towards a more open, supportive workplace culture.

Talking to an employee

A line manager who believes that a member of staff may be experiencing mental ill health should take the lead and attempt to speak to the staff member in private. As well as remaining supportive throughout the meeting, the line manager should also:

  • Ensure that they are not distracted (e.g. computers and mobile phones should be turned off);
  • Listen actively and be sympathetic and understanding;
  • Use open questions;
  • Reassure the individual that they are there to help them and offer support; and
  • Remain open minded.

Whilst a lack of knowledge can be a defence to some disability discrimination claims, knowledge doesn’t need to be actual, it can be implied based on what the employer does know and the conduct it observes.

Although you cannot force an employee to share details of their health, it may be helpful to explain that without a clear understanding, the opportunity to provide support may be missed.

Do not under estimate the importance of line managers

Line mangers play an important role in promoting good health in the workplace. They are usually the ones responsible for dealing with mental health in the workforce day to day. However, many can lack the confidence or experience to manage this alone. Therefore consider putting in place support and training to help them recognise the early signs of a mental health condition. Make it clear that they are not expected to become experts in mental health or to handle problems alone – instead they are there to flag problems and signpost the support and resources available.

Create a mental health policy

A consistent approach towards mental health issues is imperative. A mental health policy will go some way to achieving this – line managers can refer to one document when requiring guidance to ensure that a consistent approach is taken. A policy also helps communicate the organisation’s commitment to promoting positive mental health in the work place.

Draw upon specialist resources

Many mental health charities are happy to provide support to both employees and employers who are struggling to address mental health issues. Making sure the employee is aware of these organisations and also speaking to them yourself will help you understand what resources may be available to the organisation.

Employers can benefit by setting a clear internal approach to mental health and drawing on ever-increasing levels of external expertise and resources. Those that don’t are going to be at a competitive disadvantage and may even be exposed to disability discrimination claims.

Please contact us for more information about the matters addressed above, or if you have any other employment law queries at 029 2034 5511 or