The statistic that approximately 1 in 10 employees in Europe is or has been absent from work due to depression, will come as no surprise to most employers or HR professionals.  This statistic takes no account of ‘presenteeism’, where employees who are unwell attend the workplace because they feel they should, but who then perform well below par.  Indeed, a number of leading European employers have formed a Steering Committee called “Target Depression in the Workplace” which is being formally launched today, World Mental Health Day.  The aim is to provide tools and resources to benefit companies worldwide and to equip them to deal with these issues.   

But what does ‘deal with these issues’ actually mean?  Many people with depression will not want to be ‘dealt with’, or ‘targeted’.  The challenge for employers is to make it clear to employees both that, regardless of whether the problem is work-related or private if they are suffering from a mental illness then this may affect their work and therefore it is a work-related issue and that this may does not mean that it is necessarily going to dismiss anyone whose illness affects his work.  In fact, in our experience, if an employee is able to be open with an employer from an early stage about his illness and how it affects him, then this can help keep the employment relationship a stable and happy one.   

Conversely, if an employee does not feel able to be open about his illness, or the employer is afraid to ask, this can cause problems if the employee has unexplained absences or his performance or conduct suffers.  The employee will often view any attempt to start performance or capability proceedings as persecution on account of his illness.  Employers may be taken by surprise if the employee claims following the start of such proceedings that his performance/absence/conduct issues are caused by illness or disability.  Both outcomes often lead to a hardening of positions by employer and employee (each in ignorance of the concerns of the other) and damage to the relationship that can be difficult to overcome.    

Whilst many people might think otherwise, we employment lawyers do not rub our hands with glee every time we get an Employment Tribunal claim on our desks.  This is particularly the case if it is apparent from the start that steps could have been taken to resolve the problem before the parties’ relationship broke down and therefore that the whole thing has been both wasteful and avoidable.  As a result, we have considered a number of ‘non-legal’ ways to help employers and employees manage problems with mental illness in a manner that limits both further stress, strain or upset for the employee and the prospect of losing a potentially valuable employee and/ or Employment Tribunal litigation for the employer. We are currently rolling out training for employers in conjunction with a leading mental health charity in how to use these tools effectively.  We will continue this series of posts on mental health with more information on this training and guest posts from the mental health charity at a later date.   

For now, let’s use World Mental Health Day to support those employers and employees who are managing mental illness well, and to encourage those who are not to do so.