Mental Health in the Workplace
Mental ill health is the cause of the highest proportion of absences from work due to ill health. If an individual falls out of work altogether, it becomes increasingly difficult to return to employment, not least because having discussions about support for mental health conditions with a prospective employer is so much harder and more risky than discussing a return to work with an employer that knows and values the individual’s skills.
In that context I have always wondered why training to identify, discuss and support mental health in the workplace is not higher up the priority list for many businesses. The vast majority of business will, as a matter of course, obtain First Aid training so ensure they have cover available to deal with emergencies involving physical illness, but mental illness doesn’t, for many, appear to register as such as high priority.
In the last couple of years we’ve seen an increase in reports of and requests to advise on how to approach employee’s struggling with suicidal thoughts, anxiety, depression, stress and alcohol dependency. There are really difficult topics to navigate and there is an understandable worry about saying or doing the wrong thing.
With that in mind I recently undertook a two day Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England course to qualify as a Mental Health First Aider. It was challenging in so many ways but the best thing I’ve done in some time. More than anything else, the course taught me how to really listen instead of always trying to think of a solution to a problem that, ultimately, is not mine to solve.
It can be hard and scary when someone tells you they are suffering a period of poor mental health but so much can be achieved by giving someone a safe space to talk, properly listening to what they have to say (instead of panicking about what you’re going to do) and offering day to day support at work whilst they seek professional assistance for the underlying health issue. It doesn’t have to be complex; some additional breaks when an employee feels overwhelmed, amended hours if they’re struggling, some additional help with their duties if needed, regular catch ups just to ask how they are and encouragement to seek the right professional support. If you have the resources, referral to occupational health for additional guidance on the support you can offer along with referrals to suitable medical services is also a great option.
I can certainly recommend MHFA as an important tool to support your staff but it will also be key to train line managers, senior managers and directors to ensure they fully understand not only their legal obligations when it comes to supporting staff with mental health difficulties but recognising the benefits of providing such support and ultimately retaining the talent the business has already invested in. According to a 2017 Public Health England report, programmes designed to promote better mental health and wellbeing in the workplace can deliver a significant return on investment; £2.37 for every £1 invested.
Author: Sarah Edwards, Employment Law Solicitor at Howarths