For the next in our series on mental health in the workplace we take a look at some helpful guidance in ACAS’s booklet, “Promoting Positive Mental Health at Work.”

Barring a surprising number of typographical clangers, this is actually a pretty good read.  The plot is a bit thin, but there are some key messages which the booklet brings to life very effectively.  Chief among these is that the issues arising from mental ill health in the workplace are in many respects no different from those stemming from physical complaints.  In each case, coping strategies include obtaining a diagnosis and medical treatment, some obligation of self-help on the part of the employee, amending the working environment or job design and flexible working.  In each case also, there will be questions about the impact on other staff of the accommodations made, and effective line management, particularly around empathy (N.B., not sympathy) and communications, will be critical.

So why do managers sometimes run scared of tackling mental health issues?  ACAS says this—”Our message is straightforward:  managing mental health should hold no fear for managers – whether they realise it or not, they already have many of the skills needed to look after their employees’ well- being.  Sometimes all it takes is an open mind”. 

But do we have that open mind?  A National Health Service survey in 2011 said that 77% of people surveyed believed mental illness to be an illness just like any other.  However, the same survey suggested that 16% believed mental illness to be caused mainly by a lack of self-discipline and will-power, and that a breathtaking 75% considered that any woman who had ever been a patient at a mental hospital could not be trusted as a babysitter – about as logical as the view that anyone who had ever twisted her ankle was no longer fit to push a pram.

Therein lies the problem, according to the booklet, i.e., that mental health illness “is often viewed as something disturbing or dangerous that lurks hidden beneath the surface of someone’s personality“.  This can lead managers who are entirely adept dealing with staff with flu and broken bones to feel in mental health cases that they are treading through some hair-triggered mine-field, and that any mis-step in conversation or conduct could lead to an explosion – tears, violence, grievances, self-harm, nervous breakdown, etc.

Those are all difficult and stressful for the manager to deal with, so surely the obvious solution is not to go into the mine-field in the first place?  Very tempting, but as the booklet makes clear, absolutely the wrong approach.  Giving an employee’s ill health an obvious wide berth can lead to his feeling isolated, rejected and unable to seek help from his employer.  Not only can that compound the illness of the employee but it can also reduce his effectiveness for the business.  The UK’s Centre for Mental Health has calculated that “presenteeism” from mental health (turning up for work when you are not well enough) costs the UK economy some £15 billion per annum.

The ACAS booklet refers to a self-perpetuating cycle with mental illness – “we don’t know much about it so we don’t talk about it so we are a little scared of it so we don’t talk about it, and so on”.   To break this circle, communication with the employee is paramount.  Try to talk to him about:-

  • the impact of his illness upon him personally;
  • what adjustments might be made at work to accommodate this (not necessarily using “adjustments” in the statutory disability sense); and
  • what you can and cannot tell his line management and/or colleagues.  Do bear in mind that there might be a tension between the confidentiality of his condition and any adjustments made to help him which impinge upon others.  It will be hard to set up a separate work station, introduce a work-coach or allow longer or more frequent breaks, re-assigned tasks, for example, without this becoming apparent to (and perhaps a source of ill-informed resentment by) the employee’s immediate colleagues.

Your employee may not want to talk to you.  Within limits, that is his prerogative.  But if you can show as his employer that you have tried in a good faith and reasonable manner and without preconceptions (i.e. with ACAS’ open mind) to open a dialogue about his mental health condition, it will be very hard to fault you later.