Supporting employees with mental health issues

What managers need to know

Three out of five employees have experienced a mental health issue in the last year either because of work or related to work, while 31 per cent have been formally diagnosed with a mental health condition.  Yet despite these alarming figures from Business in the Community/Mercer research, stress, anxiety and depression still remain taboo subjects in many workplaces, with only one in ten employees saying they felt able to talk about mental health issues with their line manager.

Dealing with an employee who you suspect has a mental health issue isn’t easy. Managers have to strike the right balance between being caring and supportive to their people, while at the same time making sure business needs continue to be met.  Often, they have had no formal training in how to appropriately support employees and are worried about how to broach the subject without making the situation worse. Managers who work in smaller businesses without an HR function can feel particularly vulnerable and unsure of where to turn to find best practice.

So as a manager, what do you need to be aware of and what can you do to make sure employees who are struggling with mental health issues get the right kind of help?

Improve your knowledge

Given the prevalence of mental health issues, it makes sense for managers to improve their knowledge of the common conditions. As an occupational health specialist, employees often tell me that “their manager doesn’t understand” or has just told them to “stop worrying” or “pull themselves together”. It’s not about becoming an expert overnight – but about being aware of some of the symptoms, and developing a basic understanding of what employees may be going through, so that you can approach the situation more sensitively. Knowing a bit about sources of external information and support will also help you signpost people to the right kind of help if and when they need it.

Recognise the signs

We all experience stress at work from time to time, but if the pressure is prolonged and there is no let-up, there is a danger people will buckle under the strain or tip over into anxiety or depression. The key is for you as a manager to spot the signs at an early stage, so that you can offer support and take action to reduce any stress, where possible, before the situation deteriorates. If an employee is suffering with stress, they may be more irritable, moody and quick to anger than normal. They may start to make mistakes, miss important details or struggle to make decisions. Someone who is suffering from anxiety will probably appear unsettled and will worry about things that wouldn’t normally bother them. They may be experiencing physical symptoms such as a racing heart or panic attacks. With depression, people become withdrawn, demotivated and can struggle to look after themselves and complete normal daily tasks. They often have trouble sleeping and as a result, come into work exhausted. As a manager, you are in a good position to spot these symptoms, because you are likely to know what an employee’s normal behaviour and performance looks like and will quite quickly see if something is different.

Start a dialogue

Managers are often reluctant to talk to an employee about their mental health, because they are concerned they may be seen as interfering or straying onto personal territory. They worry that if they open the door, the person may become upset and that they won’t know how to deal with it. The conversation may well feel uncomfortable – but it’s important to get issues out in the open. Only the individual themselves can tell you how they are feeling and what they need, whether that’s a bit of leeway for a few weeks while they sort out a personal situation that is causing them stress, or a serious issue that requires professional help. Recognise that people may be reluctant to open up because they don’t want to admit they have a problem, or because they fear it will have a negative impact on their job or career. Try starting the conversation by asking people how they are coping with work in general and mentioning that you are worried they may be experiencing stress. Make it clear the conversation is coming from a place of concern and that you want to support them – not punish them because their performance has decreased.

Make simple adjustments

Sometimes, quite small changes to people’s role or responsibilities can make a big difference to their ability to get through a difficult time. It’s about taking a common sense approach and looking at what simple adjustments you can make that will help them, and which are also reasonable from a business point of view. Typical adjustments might include reducing someone’s working hours on a temporary basis, or allowing them to work more flexibly or occasionally from home. In some instances, you might want to reduce their workload, extend deadlines or set less challenging targets. Taking the opportunity to improve communication in general is also important. Often, people become stressed at work because they are unsure of what is expected of them, have been given tasks they are not properly equipped to carry out or are not receiving positive feedback about their efforts. As a manager, try to think creatively about what you can do to alleviate the problem and stop the situation deteriorating any further.

Know when to seek external help

If the common sense approach isn’t working – or you can see that someone needs more help than you can give them – you need to seek external support. Be wary of getting too embroiled in the details and becoming the employee’s sole source of support. This is not only emotionally draining and time-consuming for you, but also gets in the way of the individual getting the professional help they need. The key is to be supportive, but keep it business-like – otherwise managing that person’s performance going forward can become difficult. An occupational health specialist can be a great support in this situation. They will be able to provide a confidential ear for the employee and signpost them to the right kind of support, while also advising you about the medical aspects of the condition, how it is likely to develop and what kind of adjustments might help. If your business doesn’t have access to an Occupational Health Advisor or Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), you can suggest the individual goes to their GP or look at some of the self-help resources that are widely available.

MIND have a great website with free resources for line managers and HR professionals to help manage mental health at work, including how to promote wellbeing and tackle the cause of work-related mental health problems, as well as how to support staff who are experiencing a mental health problem. Mental health resources for managers.

If you have an employee experiencing difficulties or would just like to talk through how to manage stress in your workplace, please feel free to call us at any time.