This post was prepared with the kind assistance of Andy Bell, Deputy Chief Executive of the Centre for Mental Health, a charity dedicated to changing the lives of people with mental health problems by improving support and bringing about fairer policies.

Many employers have experience of dealing with prolonged, costly and challenging sickness absences of employees with mental health issues. While inevitably there will be situations in which sickness absence is medically necessary or the most appropriate solution, very often it may at the same time increase the employee’s feelings of isolation and so exacerbate the problem.  The longer an employee is absent from the business the more difficult it becomes for them to return to work (statistics show a sharp drop in the rate of successful returns after 6 weeks’ absence) and if a “new normal” has established itself in the interim, the less their colleagues may want them to return.  Supporting an individual within the workplace may mean that they do not see absence as their only option, in turn potentially making a huge difference to that person’s career and saving the business the time and expense of dealing with a protracted sickness absence.

How can businesses and HR teams improve the support offered to employees with mental health issues such that less time off is required?

Foster an open culture

  • Encourage an environment where mental health is spoken about openly. Otherwise employees may feel they cannot raise concerns about their mental health and so suffer in silence while their condition deteriorates, and they potentially become less productive and more difficult to work with. For example, if someone in a senior role has experience of mental health issues, ask if they would be happy to share their experiences.
  • Mental health difficulties in the workplace are often assumed to be ‘work-related stress’. While the workplace can be stressful, mental health issues are frequently not work-related at all. In many cases the issues are in the individual’s personal life and the state of their working life can then either help or hinder existing problems.

Don’t be afraid to act

  • The natural fear of doing the wrong thing when dealing with employees with mental health issues can often paralyse colleagues, managers and organisations into not addressing issues with an employee who is clearly struggling with their mental health. Doing nothing is not only unhelpful for the employee but can often lead to the breakdown of relationships and prolonged and difficult absences. These situations can easily turn sour. A Tribunal claim will be stressful both for the individual and the managers who have to deal with it, and can be expensive for the business. Acting quickly and sensitively may avert many later problems.
  • Encourage colleagues to do what they would do if someone had a physical illness. Treat mental health just as health; applying common sense and compassion will always be a good guide. If an employee does go off sick, stay in touch in a sensitive manner. Send them a “Get well” card in the same way that you would if they were off with back pain or a broken leg for example. Treating the illness as something that has happened to that individual which does not change them or imply any weakness or innate vulnerability, like flu or a kidney stone, will encourage the belief that they can recover and that their colleagues are looking forward to their return.

Equip line managers with the resources to support employees

  • Colleagues and managers who are supportive can make the difference between an individual needing to take time off work or not. Have the individual’s colleagues noticed that he or she is behaving differently? Have they become quieter, more aggressive? Are they no longer meeting deadlines or struggling with their usual duties? A simple initial friendly approach by a line manager (“How are things going?” or “Anything I can help you with?”), just a smile in what may seem a hostile world, may mean that the individual does not feel the need to go off sick or returns more quickly from sickness absence.
  • Provide training on how to spot potential mental health issues and make sure managers know what support is available so they can refer employees to sources of help: employee assistance programmes; a visit to their GP; details of NHS organisations or charities which can provide support. Line managers should not be expected to become doctors or counsellors but it will help if they can point an employee in the direction of appropriate assistance if they are struggling.

Alternatives to long absence

If the employee is disabled then the employer will have a duty to make reasonable adjustments. When dealing with any employee with mental health issues, be flexible with adjustments that could be made to assist them to remain at work or return to work as early as they can.  For example, if the employee finds their commute particularly stressful, then perhaps they could be allowed for a period to work from home or start later in the day to avoid travelling during rush hour.  If the employee has caring responsibilities which they are finding stressful, then perhaps a reduction of hours or part-time work would assist them.