Mental Health at Work – an HR professional’s perspective
Everyone is talking about mental health at work and it is reasonable to assume that absence due to mental health issues is going to continue to increase and it is becoming a significant challenge. Here, Adrian from AB HR Solutions discusses the nature of responding to and supporting an employee with mental health issues.
Mental Health and Medical Certification
You don’t very often see a medical certificate that says the reason for absence is mental health. We are seeing all sorts of different language on medical certificates these days – low mood, anxiety, fatigue, work related stress, depression. Recently – one said “stress due to workplace bullying.”
These are all terms being used by GPs and they should send out warning signals for the employer because it is suggesting that the employee is demonstrating signs of struggling with mental health.
Mental health and disability discrimination
Dismissing an employee with mental health issues can give rise to a disability discrimination claim so it is important that employers tread carefully when dealing with employee mental health issues.
Employers often think that if the employee has mental health issues and less than 2 years service, there is no comeback. This is incorrect because even though the employee cannot bring a claim for unfair dismissal, they can potentially bring a claim for disability discrimination. However, an isolated 2 week medical certificate for work related stress does not automatically mean that the employee has mental health issues and can claim disability discrimination.
Conflict of interest
The employer also has to tread a fine line because they owe their employees a “duty of care” and the natural instinct is to be supportive. Recently, whilst supporting a client with an employee mental health issue, I challenged the client and asked – “hold on – are you their therapist or their employer?” They looked aghast at the comment.
Here is our dilemma – the majority of us are not mental health specialists and think that we should help an employee when they have difficulties but actually, there is a risk that our actions are compounding the problem. Employees who display mental health issues are often reluctant to seek specialist help and are in denial. Also, many businesses now have Mental Health First Aiders, who do an excellent job and are trained to identify and recognise mental health issues but not to provide specialist help because they aren’t clinically qualified.
About 12 months ago, a client told me about an employee who had “issues” and he insisted on coming to work because he said he preferred to come to work because of the social inter-action and he got lonely if he stayed at home. The workplace is not a social club or a therapy centre and in those situations, an employee should be getting medical help but the biggest challenge with mental health is actually those who are unwilling to face up to their problems.
The natural instinct of most Companies is to be supportive to their people but there may come a point where a difficult conversation has to take place about their future in the business.
If you look at some work environments, specifically Helpdesk Contact Centres or large scale transactional processing centres, the Supervisors get very close to their team, socialise with them, befriends them on social media……and actual forget that their core role is to line manage them and socialising with them can lead to a conflict of interest when they have to have difficult conversations.
Similarly, a lot of employees confide in their work colleagues about their mental health issues on the basis that “I’m going to tell you something but you mustn’t say anything…..” This is putting people in a very difficult situation and often they feel conflicted and they want to be supportive but people with serious mental health issues need specialist help.
How can employers help?
Companies can help in many ways. Often a first step is to refer the employee to an Occupational Health clinician – this may be a Doctor but they will be clinically able to help. It is quite common for an OH referral to involve obtaining a report from the employee’s GP under the Access to Medical Reports Act.
An OH assessment in conjunction with a GP report is likely to give useful insight into the employee’s condition and history of mental health as well as details of medication and side effects, likelihood of return to work and whether the employer should make any reasonable adjustments to accommodate the employee’s return to work.
It is also likely that an OH report will recommend carrying out a stress questionnaire or risk assessment – this can be a very useful exercise because it highlights “trigger points” for the employee which are likely to accentuate the problem.
Some Companies support the employee by funding counselling but there can be long waiting lists for counselling. Sometimes, the employee will be referred through their GP.
Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) are excellent because they give employees an opportunity to off load in confidence with a trained specialist who is independent of the business.
Note the words – “specialist” and “independent”. Employees often need specialist help from people who are trained, qualified and experienced in dealing with such issues and wherever possible, such people should be independent – remote, distant, separated from the busines to avoid a conflict of interest.
Mental health issues in the workplace are going to increase and Companies have a responsibility to put processes and procedures in place, run workshops to increase awareness to ensure that employees with mental health issues can be supported.
Many larger Companies are now seeing the benefits of training Mental Health First Aiders. These are people in the business who are trained to spot early warning signs of mental health issues with employees and they can sign post the employee in the right direction for specialist help and support.
Keeping in touch with employees who have mental health issues
Someone once told me that you can’t contact someone when they’re off with mental health issues.
Not true – you can keep in touch with employees who are off with mental health issues but you must be careful. Too much contact and you will be accused of pestering the employee and hampering their recovery and if you have too little contact, you will be accused of not caring.
So, it’s almost impossible to get the balance exactly right and it is beneficial to have a single point of contact to avoid countless people always getting in touch. One solution does not fit all when dealing with mental health issues.