Managing Mental Health in the Workplace

managing mental health in the workplaceIt’s a roller coaster time emotionally for many in today’s workforce, so let’s take a few minutes to explore mental health in the workplace. The key questions we are being asked are: 

  • Should we have a mental health policy?
  • What is the difference between poor mental health and a mental health illness?
  • Who is responsible for mental health – the employee or the company?
  • Do organisations need mental health first aiders?
  • What should or can HR be doing in this area?
  • What can managers do on a day to day basis to support their team members?
  • Training for managers and/or staff – what should we do?
  • Should managers encourage someone to go off sick if they are experiencing poor mental health?
  • How do we tackle this ongoing stigma about talking about mental health?

If we are being asked these questions, we are guessing that you will be hearing some of them in your own organisation too. Here are a few of our answers, followed by some key facts.

Should we have a mental health policy? 

Within Jaluch, we are not fans of creating a policy for every eventuality.

Recently, the press have been publishing articles about businesses creating pregnancy loss policies; if pregnancy loss, why not menopause, long COVID, or cancer etc.?

The more policies you have, the more time you will have to spend keeping them all regularly reviewed and up to date, to avoid looking unprofessional. It also becomes a mammoth task communicating, ensuring that everyone knows what policies there are and how they might apply. Additionally, with each new policy, you will need to ensure that your managers are trained up and understand how to apply it. Our recommendation is always to keep it simple. Knowing when to stop when it comes to adding in new policies or creating new procedures to achieve compliance is critical. Never overcomplicate and never over-engineer. 

Rather than a specific mental health policy, we would advocate a really robust and regularly reviewed wellbeing/ill-health policy and compassionate leave policy. Between the two policies, most eventualities can be covered. Of course, alongside these, we recommend you give training for managers. 

In terms of the ill-health/wellbeing policy (often still titled Sickness Absence) we think it’s a great idea to include a few paragraphs about the company’s approach to managing and supporting those with poor mental health or a mental health illness. If you have or are considering purchasing counselling to support your staff, your policy is a great place to include this ‘good news’ as well as the ‘not always so positive news’ around how sickness absence will be measured/managed. 

What is the difference between poor mental health and a mental health illness?

All of us are familiar with getting up each day, looking in the mirror and taking stock of our physical condition for the day – looking a bit tired, bones aching, eyes bloodshot, feeling full of energy, brain alert etc. But we are not so familiar with looking in the mirror each morning and taking a minute to take stock of our mental health. We all have ‘mental health’ and some days, a bit like our physical health, it is in peak condition and other days it’s in not such a great place. This is what we describe as a day with poor mental health.

In contrast, if we have a mental health illness then we are likely to have had a formal medical diagnosis and have an understanding of how it might be affecting us hour by hour, day by day and week by week. Of course, some mental health illnesses are successfully controlled by medication, so the effects are minimal if we follow the prescribed medication routine, whilst others are not always so successfully controlled. 

A poor mental health day does not mean you have a mental health illness. Anxiety, a lack of sleep, feeling unsupported, poor diet, lack of exercise or fresh air, fear of failure, money worries, house move stress etc. are all things that might create a situation where someone has a short period of poor mental health. 

Of course, managers will have to manage both those with mental illnesses as well as those experiencing poor mental health. 

Who is responsible for mental health – the employee or the company?

The short answer is both! As adults in the workplace, we need to be responsible for our own mental health management. However, the organisation has responsibilities too, especially if the employee asks for support or identifies something within the workplace or working day that is causing their poor mental health. 

Within the emotional intelligence work we do we use an EI profiling tool that identifies 15 contributors to emotional intelligence. One of these is empathy and this is perhaps the starting point for most managers seeking to support one of their team – don’t rush to judge, instead ask questions and show empathy. However, of equal importance is the criterion emotion perception. Not everyone feels strong empathy, but we do believe that all managers could be encouraged to actively listen and in so doing identify emotional distress at an early stage. This is emotion perception and can be the key to knowing when to step in or to ask HR or other appropriate people to support. 

Do organisations need mental health first aiders?

There is no current law for this, but increasingly businesses are training up mental health first aiders as part of an initiative to both educate the workforce generally and support those team members who are struggling.

If you decide to train up mental health first aiders, a few words of caution though:

  • Think through how they will carry out this role.
  • What time will be given to it outside their normal work?
  • What the parameters of their role will be.
  • Critically, who will support them?

We have come across a first aider going off sick due to the emotional distress arising out of their work as a mental health first aider – be very careful what responsibility they are given and the support available to them. 

What should or can HR be doing in this area?

  • Start by educating the HR team about mental health. We can’t support others if we don’t start by educating ourselves. 
  • Include wording about managing and support with mental health in your wellbeing or ill health policy. 
  • Develop training for line managers to better educate and raise confidence levels to enable greater support of an employee who is in mental health distress
  • Review the content of and guidance for return to work interviews after absence to ensure they are appropriate for mental as well as physical health
  • Consider the introduction (if you don’t have one already) of an EAP (employee assistance programme) or similar so your staff have easy access to counselling and support if required. 
  • Consider a staff survey to assess views on mental health, challenges for team members, support being provided. We would not encourage an ‘open house’ for criticisms, complaints etc but if you carefully word your questions you will gather some important information to give you an understanding of where and how to support. 

What can managers do on a day to day basis to support their team members?  

Here is our advice:

  • Make time for your staff.
  • Learn to listen better.
  • Be on the alert for emotional distress.
  • Read or watch a few video clips to learn about mental health. Be available.
  • Don’t shy away from the topic because it involves messy emotions – get courageous!

Training for managers and/or staff – what should we do? 

We deliver 2, 3, 4 and 6 hour online courses for both managers and staff in understanding mental health and mental wellbeing. The managers’ course includes sessions of course on managing mental wellbeing. 

With this being such a ‘hot topic’ and employees expecting their employers to be actively supporting in this area we do recommend you find a training supplier and deliver some sessions for staff and managers. If you’d like more information about the courses we offer, have a look through our health and wellbeing training pages.

Should managers encourage someone to go off sick if they are experiencing poor mental health?

We think managers should tread very carefully. In many cases, people’s mental health can be supported by being in and around other people and being kept busy at work, in contrast to being off sick and feeling isolated from people and normal routines. 

Managers should ask their team members what they wish to do and, as appropriate involve occupational health, encourage them to use your EAP service, or encourage them to speak with their GP. 

Managers can listen, but they should not give advice about whether to be at work or signed off sick. However, understanding that being busy, being around people etc. is often recommended to those suffering poor mental health and also some mental illnesses is an important piece of information for you to share with your managers. Pushing them to go off sick because it feels uncomfortable to be around them or because you think that is best for their support or recovery, may not be in anyone’s best interests. Leave decisions about being signed off sick to the professionals and/or your employee. 

How do we tackle this ongoing stigma about talking about mental health?

Ah, this is an easy one to finish on as there are some relatively straightforward actions you can take to begin this process of tackling stigma…

  • Organise training on mental health, get people talking about it – after all we are all human and experience poor mental health days even if we do not have a mental health illness. 
  • Encourage a culture of respect, listening, non-judgement – do any of your values incorporate aspects of respect or consideration for others?
  • Train up some mental health first aiders. 
  • Ensure your managers are not so booked up with back to back meetings they are unable to make time to just ‘talk’ to their team members – this is about looking at how time is spent in the business and whether it is spent on the right things. 
  • Involve your staff representative group to keep the communication and learning going across the organisation.

A few stats about Perceptions of mental ill-health

  • Over a third of the public think people with a mental health issue are likely to be violent.
  • People with severe mental illness are more likely to be the victims, rather than the perpetrators, of violent crime.
  • People with mental ill-health are more dangerous to themselves than to others: 80-90% of people who die by suicide are experiencing mental distress.
  • Poor mental health impacts on individuals, their families, in lost income, lower educational attainment, quality of life, and a much shorter life span.

More information can be found on MHFA England

We hope this HR Blast has given you some food for thought. Please do ask us if you have any questions or leave a comment below. We can provide face to face, live online, or eLearning training on mental wellbeing. We can also develop bespoke materials for you to roll out across your team if that is your preferred approach. Please do call us on 01425 479888 to talk through your requirements


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